Every hour the universe expands by a billion miles in all directions, and yet with 13:16 to go in the second quarter of the Seattle Seahawks’ victory against the New York Jets Sunday, Russell Wilson took a snap in the pistol formation from the New York 49-yard line and the Seahawks down 3-0. Christine Michael, Sr., stood in a two-point stance on the right hash mark two yards behind Wilson, while Wilson directed reserve tight end Brandon Williams to move from halfback offset right to Wilson’s left. Luke Willson was tight to the line of scrimmage on the formation’s right side while Jermaine Kearse split out to the left with Doug Baldwin flanking that side between the left hash and the 50-yard numeral.
At the snap, Baldwin and Kearse run double posts, with Baldwin dragging his route toward the far end zone corner when Jets safety Marcus Gilchrist drifts into a deep zone. Wilson fakes a handoff to Michael, Sr., the New York defense rushes five and Williams chips outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins on his way to his outlet route along the left seam. With Michael helping sort out a stunt between Deon Simon and Muhammad Wilkerson on the interior, Wilson feels Sheldon Richardson getting to Garry Gilliam at his right and steps forward into the gap between Gilliam and where the rest of the pocket is shifting to the left.
All this has taken two seconds. Wilson now gallops toward the 50-yard line and takes a few stutter steps, raising his right arm with the football. This motion freezes Jets rookie inside linebacker Darron Lee and, if you’ve seen Russell Wilson throughout his career, that hesitation by Lee giving Wilson at least a five-yard cushion plus no defenders to the boundary side of the field (after Luke Willson’s route cleared out the cornerback) should be enough for Wilson to tuck the ball and angle toward the sideline for the eight yards needed for the first down or at least set up a very short third down try.
But Sunday Wilson was wearing a huge knee brace stabilizing his damaged MCL and a stiff wrap of tape on his sprained right ankle and he may not have had the speed to turn the corner against Lee—or even worse, Richardson might quickly stalk him from behind. Anyway Wilson is Wilson and his eyes remained downfield and Baldwin has neatly split the safeties Gilchrist and Calvin Pryor and instead of pump-faking Wilson releases mid-stride just as he approaches the line of scrimmage.
The ball simultaneously loops and drills 37 yards through the air, seeming worrisomely at once to float and to dive, until the broadcast camera catches up to it just in time to see it drop into the basket of Baldwin’s arms—and just in time to show Pryor send Baldwin’s head and neck to Jersey City.
You remember the play I’m talking about.
Jacson Bevens described the catch like this Sunday after the game: “On the replay, you see how violent the collision actually was and how the ball doesn’t even move in his grasp when the hit comes.” No question, Baldwin’s completing the reception is extraordinary. For Baldwin to focus on the ball’s arrival while ignoring the oncoming defender—while, as Jacson emphasizes, sacrificing his instincts toward self-protection—requires a mental training the likes of which you usually only find in certain circus performers, stuntmen, firemen and military personnel.
So it’s a tremendous catch. But I want to talk about the throw because if you watch the replay closely you notice that Pryor’s helmet makes contact with Baldwin’s before the ball lodges in the receiver’s arms.
That’s right. Baldwin showed distinguished mettle and willpower to put his body into position to receive that grab at the correct angle but I can’t credit Doug Baldwin for securing the ball because I think he was out cold during it.
The ball comes in from high to low—like every football thrown in earth’s gravity must, yes, but in a rather dramatic curve almost like the fang of a Kazuhiro Sasaki forkball. Yet it’s not dropping straight down either, like an Aaron Rodgers moon balloon or even an ordinary fade pass. It’s coming like a parabolic rocket does, at an angle of incidence more or less equal to the inclination at its firing—but with touch!
After seeing what happened to Baldwin, that’s one of the most interesting things about Wilson’s throw: The way the ball travels appears haphazard, the fact that it sails combined with how it zips, but these opposite united features create the only possible timing and placement for the ball to tuck itself so neatly into Baldwin’s reflexively clamping arms. The ball’s flight reminds me of the flight of an arrow in slow motion, or how I imagine the ball to soar in “jav-out” format from the Tim Tebow CFL Chronicles. Baldwin was not so wide open that Wilson could have simply lobbed it to him like he did for Tanner McEvoy on the next drive. You’d think that Wilson might have thrown it more directly, to give his receiver the chance to catch it with space to turn upfield or gather himself for the blow. But the linebacker Lee was near enough the passing lane to have affected a bullet-type throw and anyway Wilson didn’t have time to set his feet and fire lest he cross the line of scrimmage or be caught by Richardson.
Instead Wilson trades in his helmet for a backward yellow snapback and his knee brace for a red bicycle and releases the ball at the top of his motion like any good paperboy. It’s the most exquisite toss available—the word exquisite means well chosen—as if Wilson already knew he needed to launch his arcing ribbon just forcefully enough to scatter the family of birds arriving to orbit Doug Baldwin’s head and carefully enough to settle all on its own in the pocket Baldwin formed with his crossed hands.
Here it is again on with the coach’s view:
Now it may not be factually, or medically—I might even have to say legally—accurate to say Baldwin was truly knocked out on the field.
He came out of the game for at least a few plays to get checked on the sideline and didn’t see another ball thrown his way until the beginning of the fourth quarter—after this successful catch gave Baldwin two catches for 54 yards pretty early on, he had two more targets for net zero yards in the remaining 43 minutes of football. But Baldwin did register 45 snaps in the game, more than any other Seahawks receiver.
As far as I can tell Baldwin is not continuing in concussion protocol this week, which I presume would be required when a player loses consciousness during a game or the failure to do so could be a serious liability.
Either way, the accuracy Wilson displayed is the key to the catch. Any higher and the ball probably ricochets off Pryor’s helmet. Any lower and Pryor likely torques Baldwin’s body away separating him from where he might be able to reach for it. Baldwin held on while absorbing an extreme shock to his head, which is a commendable act of football courage, but Russell Wilson preternaturally placed the ball in perhaps the only location in the universe and from the only angle that made it physically or biomechanically possible for Baldwin to do so.