Early in his NFL career, Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin got a chance take part in offseason workouts in Minnesota with a group of players that included Arizona Cardinals great Larry Fitzgerald.
Years later, as Baldwin has developed into a Pro Bowler and one of the game's best at his position, he looks back on those interactions with a player who is almost certainly a future Hall of Famer as key moments in his development as an NFL receiver.
"It just changed my perspective on the game of football," Baldwin said. "Before, I was just getting by on my athleticism, but talking to Larry and some other guys across the league, they really taught me the chess match that's within the game of football. I think, personally, Larry is probably the best body language and mannerism manipulator at the receiver position. He does an excellent job of just not giving anything away and also telling people that he's going one way when he's actually going the other way, so it's incredible to watch. It's really artwork on the football field to me."
Fitzgerald, 34, has not yet said if he will play in 2018, so it's possible Sunday's game could be not just his last at CenturyLink Field, but the last of a remarkable career that has seen him catch the third most passes (1,226) for the third-most receiving yards (15,490) in NFL history. And if this is Fitzgerald's last game, he will have made his mark on the Seahawks, not just because of his production against Seattle—he has 1,903 yards and 11 touchdowns in 26 games against the Seahawks—but also in the influence he has had on current Seahawks like Baldwin and cornerback Richard Sherman.
Asked earlier this season to name his biggest learning moment early in his NFL career, Sherman immediately pointed to a receiver against whom he has had many memorable battles.
"It was probably playing against Larry," Sherman said prior to Seattle's Week 10 game at Arizona. "I think it was my last game of my rookie year. It was less to do with athleticism and body position and things like that, than it was just being crafty and being smart and understanding places on the field—where quarterbacks like to put the ball, because he would be running the same routes as these other guys but he would be getting to different places on the field. You are watching all these guys on film and you are like, 'Man, he's running the same route, but how is he getting to these different places?' It's more of mental game. It's more of an understanding of his and the quarterback's relationship, his veteran-ness, than it is route combinations and things like that in the rhythm of the game. Once I realized that, I figured out that once you find your own rhythm to the game and your own style and your own way of affecting the game, then you will be fine regardless of the circumstances regardless if you feel like the sky is falling, you can still stand up. You can still make plays because your technique shouldn't waiver or falter."
Baldwin and Fitzgerald are very different players from a physical standpoint—the 6-foot-3, 218-pound Fitzgerald was the No. 3 overall pick in the 2004 draft for a reason—but as Baldwin has developed as a receiver, he has shown plenty of the same traits that have made Fitzgerald an all-time great, ranging from toughness to big-play ability to great hands to crafty route running.
"Besides the athletic tools that he has, he's just an extremely cerebral football player," Baldwin said. "He knows X's and O's. I've had a number of opportunities just to talk to him about football and one of those things that I've taken away from him is that he really goes into games knowing what defenses are going to try to do against him, the different techniques. He has this huge, I don't even know what to call it, but he just has this knowledge of defensive coordinators, defensive players that it's just impeccable, it's incredible but it's also not surprising because he's had so much success you'd expect when you see how much work he puts into it, it's not surprising. He's going to go down as a Hall of Famer, but I really can't say enough about the man, because I mean he's old as dirt and he's still playing at an extremely high level, so he's just a professional through and through."
At 29, Baldwin doesn't yet qualify as "old as dirt," but over the course of his seven-year career, has picked up plenty of tricks along the way when it comes to route-running and setting up defensive backs. Take, for example, Baldwin's touchdown against Dallas in which he found himself wide open in the end zone after crossing up rookie cornerback Chidobe Awuzie with what he describes as a hop-skip hesitation.
Baldwin has used variations of that move throughout his career to beat press coverage, including when he scored a touchdown on Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in a win over the Giants earlier this season, or when he torched Rams cornerback Troy Hill for a 1-yard touchdown at CenturyLink Field last season, or when he got open for a touchdown catch in Seattle's Wild-Card win in Minnesota two seasons ago. Baldwin likens the move to a basketball crossover dribble, and it's so devastating because he can release inside or outside with equal effectiveness, and the hesitation allows Baldwin read the cornerback and react accordingly after his defender has tipped his hand.
"Anytime Doug is one-on-one, that's a good thing, so I give him chances as much as I can," Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson said. "He's the best at it, he finds ways to get open. He's special; he's really special."
Baldwin calls his release at the line of scrimmage, "my bread and butter. That's what I hang my hat on. That's what I look forward to when guys press me, when defenses play man-to-man, that's when I'm at my best. So yeah, I don't know for other receivers if that's the same scenario or the same case but for me, that's my wheelhouse."
Three of Baldwin's top eight games in terms of receiving yards have come against Arizona, including a career-high 171 yards last year in a home loss, and if Baldwin can put together another big game against the Cardinals, he could put himself in elite company in franchise history. With 99 yards Sunday, Baldwin would hit the 1,000-yard mark for a third consecutive season, something that previously has only been accomplished by Hall of Famer Steve Largent.
"Obviously, I would like to achieve that," Baldwin said. "That would be a great personal, individual achievement. Obviously being in the same sentence as Steve Largent in any regard is an honor. However, I'm going to take the win however we can get it; that's what's most important. I know Steve personally and I know he would give a lot back if he could have a Super Bowl, so just that same mindset and that same emotional response, I'd much rather get back to winning a ring than having individual stats."
And if Baldwin is able to have a big game and help his team improve to 10-6, he'll do so while facing an opponent who played a small role in helping him develop into the player he is today.
"At first, Larry didn't want to talk about football," Baldwin said of his earliest encounters with Fitzgerald. "It was me, I kept pushing him, asking him questions. Of course, I'm trying to get an advantage, right? But he just wanted to know who I was as a person, as a man. In the moment, I didn't really appreciate it, but once I took a step back and as I got older, I really started to realize how valuable that is. As you guys know, in our world, we don't really get asked about how are you doing or who you are as human being. It's always about football. Questions are always about football. But for another football player to really start to engage with me about me as a person and life outside of football, I thought it was pretty profound so that was the biggest takeaway that I had from Larry."