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Doug Baldwin’s ascension from pedestrian to phenom

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Seattle Seahawks Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

“Of course it was you.”

This was my reaction to the Seattle Seahawks’ go-ahead touchdown scored by Doug Baldwin against the Miami Dolphins in the closing minute of Sunday’s unbelievably stiff contest. Doug’s touchdown was a cap on a great game; Here I was with a smug smirk on my face uttering those words.

Normally in situations like this I’m wound up so tight that it’s the screaming that lets me shed the tension. It’s one of those things I’ve gotten used to. I’ve become prepared for my emotional fatigue after six seasons of realizing that Pete Carroll lives for these games.

It was strange to sit there in smug appreciation of my favorite offensive player.

Baldwin arrived in 2011 as an undrafted afterthought when the Seahawks were building the offense around Mike Williams, and free agents Sidney Rice and Zach Miller. But among all of the pass-catching weapons that season, the splash was made by the unknown one. Against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 1, Baldwin caught a 5-yard quick strike and took it 50 yards to the house, closing the 49ers lead to just two points in that game. Sadly, Seattle went on to give up two special teams scores to Ted Ginn, but I wasn’t that mad.

Out of nowhere here was this undrafted rookie hitting his route right on the money, turning looking for the ball, and exploding to the endzone for a touchdown as if he’d run this play thousands of times in his sleep. He finished the day with four catches for 83 yards and a TD.

I was stoked.

Context for late comers

The Seahawks had some talented receivers in the mid-2000s — Darrell Jackson, Koren Robinson, Bobby Engram, Joe Jurevicius, and Deion Branch — but many of the ones they tried either never became a good fit in Seattle or were out of the NFL by the time Carroll arrived in 2010. Fans had become desperate for a star receiver and since the retirement of Steve Largent decades earlier, most had given up on finding one — When Baldwin flashed in that first game, he had every Seahawks fan curious about what could come next.

As his rookie campaign pressed on and he piled up a total of 51 catches for 788 yards and four touchdowns, people were excited that Seattle might have found at least its next Engram, if not something much greater.

Sudden Growing Pains

The 2012 season opener was an odd prophecy of the pains the offense would endure behind a third round rookie named Russell Wilson manning the drives. Opening up on the road against the Arizona Cardinals showed the steely resolve Wilson had as he lead his team down the field for an attempt at a game winning score; A pass that was a hot missile ended up on the turf with Baldwin face down. No luck this time.

It proved to be a half-season of growth that wouldn’t settle until a game in Chicago turned the team (and Wilson) around.

But Baldwin’s campaign was lackluster — 29 receptions for 366 yards and three touchdowns. Fans were also reminded that Carroll had drafted a receiver 60th overall a year before Baldwin arrived and quickly gravitated back to Golden Tate and his impressive open-field skills as he racked up a career-best 688 yards and seven touchdowns that season. It often became, “Oh yeah... Hey Doug.” A far cry from how many felt about him just a season earlier.

Is He Going To Break Through?

For me, I always looked at Doug through a strange prism of “personal fan” instead of “team fan.” If Baldwin left Seattle to play somewhere else, I would root for him there. This is how much I thought of his talent and how hard he worked. Doug’s talent was starting to hit me too. He looked a lot like Largent, in my opinion. The quickness, the route precision, selling out for catches ... I just rooted for him differently.

When he opened 2013 with a perfect 7 catches on 7 targets for 91 yards, I thought he was back on the right track. This is where he breaks through and shows everyone why draft scouts can suc-oh sorry, I got carried away.

It didn’t happen though and I was frustrated. Not for my prediction, but for Doug. As the Super Bowl season dragged on, it was the hottest thing to do: bash the receiving corp.

“Pedestrian” became the buzz word Doug and Richard Sherman slung around at each other as a joke after Cris Carter questioned Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse’s right to be on an NFL field. He ended 2013 with 50 receptions, 778 yards and five touchdowns — a near-copy of his rookie campaign. But all of that criticism probably only fueled Doug Baldwin and the Seahawks to their first ever Super Bowl title.

He became a successful champion receiver after Rice had fallen off, after Williams had disappeared, after Miller had disappointed, and after trade acquisition Percy Harvin had spent virtually the whole year on the sidelines — the undrafted guy out of Stanford who had fought for every inch in his career quietly posted a career-high 69.4% catch rate with a non-pedestrian 15.6 yards per catch. In the playoffs, he caught 13 of 15 targets for 202 yards.

But the best was yet to come.

Who’s Fault is it?!

Seattle came into 2014 with even higher hopes than the year prior, but they were just 3-3 after six games. As the struggles mounted, people (including myself) dumped it at the feet of these “undrafted guys.” Doug felt the pressure more and more and stories of his outbursts at media members were common and worrisome. I personally felt that Doug was letting external forces pull on him, and despite career highs in catches and yards, I was starting to lose faith that we would see him become a big star.

Then the Super Bowl happened and Doug had his strange “demonstration” in the end zone and I just felt so angry about what my favorite player had done that I went on a Twitter tirade so bad that he actually blocked me. It hurt because I just felt like the well had been so poisoned that Doug would be gone and my Largent-sized dreams would be just another idiot speaking in hyperbole.

The Arrival

Baldwin’s 2015 season is as bipolar as you can get, with one half of it looking like a page out of the ‘pedestrian’ playbook and then coming out of nowhere in the second half to put up scoring numbers unlike most had ever seen.

Games 1-8: 31 catches, 345 yards, 2 TD

Games 9-16: 47 catches, 724 yards, 12 TD

The first half looked like a season we had become used to from Doug — fine but definitely not spectacular — and then second half paces out to numbers not reached by many receivers not named Jerry Rice or Randy Moss. It’s hard to imagine that Baldwin will ever score 24 touchdowns in a season or anything like that, but certainly fans went into 2016 with a belief again that he could be the best receiver in Seattle since Largent himself.

Unfortunately we can look back to 2012 and remember that we had been hurt before by expectations, and for that reason, hopes were tempered, even after he signed the big extension that paid him like a top-10 receiver. Thankfully, those concerns should be temporarily quelled by another strong performance in Week 1.

Baldwin caught 9 of 11 targets for 92 yards against the Dolphins, including: a first down on fourth-and-four, a catch-and-run to setup first-and-goal from the two, and of course, what would end up as the game-winner. He’s not big like Mike Williams, he’s not tall like Sidney Rice, he’s not extremely fast like Percy Harvin. He wasn’t chosen by a single team in the 2011 draft, and honestly right up to 2015, he was hardly even chosen as the number one receiver on his own team as they worked to add Tyler Lockett and Paul Richardson in the draft while trading for Harvin and Jimmy Graham.

He’s not like any of those players, he’s only like Doug Baldwin; After five--plus seasons and quiet but undeniable improvement, that might finally be enough.