The most important thing to know about Doug Baldwin's recent stretch of big games is that Doug Baldwin is not playing the best football of his life. Instead, Baldwin is putting up the best numbers of his career because, more than ever, he has gotten more opportunities of late to show what he can do.
"I don't think he has done anything different," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "I think he's always been there for the opportunities, and he's such a great competitor. He always wants to contribute more and all that, which we love about him. I think just the emergence of his time spent in our offense with Russell (Wilson) and with his coaches, I think we're getting him in the right spots to take advantage of the plays that he can make. He has always been a playmaker. Remember his first year, he had set some record for the most first-down conversions by a free agent receiver since whenever, some big record like that. He's always been that kind of guy. So I don't think it's anything that different, yet we're able to take advantage of the things that both (Wilson and Baldwin) see more effectively."
To be a receiver in Seattle's offense means having your patience tested from time to time. The Seahawks have attempted the fewest or second fewest passes every year since 2012, and even with the recent improvements to the passing game, the Seahawks are still last in the league in attempts this season. Fewer pass attempts obviously means fewer targets for every receiver, so for Baldwin and company, that has always translated to the kind of stats that lead to disparaging descriptions from pundits such as "pedestrian" and "appetizers."
But over the last four weeks, Baldwin has put up the kind of numbers he and his teammates believed he was capable of all along, given the chance to do so. Over the past four games, Baldwin has 24 catches for 433 yards and six touchdowns, and he now ranks fifth among NFL receivers and seventh overall in touchdown receptions with eight. Of the receivers ahead of him on that list, one has 88 targets and the rest have 115 or more, while Baldwin has 64.
"You see how he can be a dominant receiver when given the opportunity, when given the chances, given the rhythm of the offense," teammate and close friend Richard Sherman said. "… He's just showing what he can do. His talent is finally getting the chance to shine. I think people are starting to finally pay attention to what he can do. I think with more opportunities, he's blossoming into the player we all know he is and could always have been."
For Baldwin, being a part of such a run-happy offense took some getting used to, and until his third year in the league, he says he had a hard time looking at numbers being put up by receivers in other offenses and not get frustrated with the lack of opportunity.
"When you come into the NFL as a wide receiver, you're thinking, 'OK, there are guys putting up 1,200, 1,300, 1,400, 1,500 yards,' and you want to compare yourself to them," Baldwin said. "That's just natural, any competitor is going to do that at first. But once you get into the system and a realize you're not going to have the opportunity to do that just because of the sheer volume, or lack thereof I should say, you try to find other things to measure yourself on—drop rate, catch percentage efficiency, all those things we take pride in as receivers here in Seattle."
Baldwin has always been one of the best in the league by those efficiency measures he mentions, but thanks to a passing attack that has taken off in recent weeks, he is getting to put up yardage and touchdown totals that almost any receiver in any offense would envy.
But while getting used to his role in Seattle's offense took Baldwin some time, he was never overly discourage by it, which makes sense given the route he took to get to this point. Baldwin only ended up at Stanford, the only Division I school to offer him a scholarship, because of a fortuitous coincidence. Kevin Doyle, the former publisher of the Pensacola News Journal, saw Baldwin play while attending a Gulf Breeze High School game with friend and former NFL coach Kay Stephenson, and when the two were impressed by Baldwin, Doyle called his son Matt, the director of football operations at Stanford, to tell him about Baldwin. Then at Stanford Baldwin nearly transferred after a rough junior season—he even had the paperwork filled out to transfer to Vanderbilt—but his mom made the smart decision of telling her son there was no way he was going to give up a scholarship to Stanford. And finally, even after a strong senior season with the Cardinal, Baldwin watched the 2011 draft go by without a single team picking him over the course of seven rounds.
So sure, Baldwin would have liked to have had the chance to post 100-yard games more often and catch more touchdowns earlier in his career, but a long road to the NFL has also shown him the value of putting in the work, no matter how unglamorous it might be at times.
"That's what he's always been," Sherman said. "He's not sitting there asking for the ball, and saying me, me, me, me, he's blocking as hard as he can for the running backs until his opportunity comes up. That's what a team player does. That's the kind of guy he's always been, so I think he's always been patient with it, but always hoping, as anybody else would, for an opportunity to shine the way he has."
That opportunity to shine is coming now, and Baldwin, who has led the Seahawks in receiving twice in his four seasons in the league, is on pace to not just do that again, but to become Seattle's first 1,000-yard receiver since Bobby Engram in 2007. And as much as Baldwin has been a team-first player who is willing to do the dirty work required to help the running game be at its best, that milestone would be a meaningful.
"Honestly it would mean a lot," he said. "It's a blessing to be getting the opportunities in games that I've been getting, so if that was to happen, it would be a great, significant individual achievement, but ultimately the goal is to win games so we can get back to the Super Bowl."