Not everything Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin does is an homage to Steve Smith. But just about everything traces back to him. “He was the embodiment of me,” Baldwin said, “but at my dream level.”
Doug Baldwin had just finished his hot wings and salad Friday night when the legend appeared on TV. His teammates trickled out of the cafeteria at the team hotel, but Baldwin was hooked.
The show was about his favorite player, Steve Smith, the receiver for the Panthers and Ravens who just retired after 16 seasons. Smith acted as both a guide and inspiration for Baldwin. He wore No. 89 in youth football because of Smith and modeled his game after him, from his violent route running to his trash talk and tenacity. Watching the NFL Network segment about Smith’s career — at one point Smith said, “I want your mom to be pissed off when I’m doing her son like dirt” — Baldwin thought, Damn, that’s Steve Smith.
“It just sent me to a different place,” Baldwin said. “I was locked in.”
He went to his room the night before the Seahawks played the Lions. At his desk, he read the Bible and kept thinking about Smith.
“Everything I just saw on TV,” Baldwin told himself, “I can do that.”
He texted Smith that night and congratulated him on a Hall of Fame career. He thanked him for what he meant to football and to him personally. Smith texted back, “It’s pretty cool and humbling to read those words. You can hit me anytime.”
The next night Baldwin caught 11 passes and a touchdown in the Seahawks’ victory, but one play was still on his mind the following afternoon.
With a vicious fourth-quarter shove to the crown of the defender’s helmet, he sent Detroit safety Don Carey flailing. On TV, Cris Collinsworth gushed, “Doug Baldwin’s not the biggest guy in the world. Watch this one. Like an Ali jab.”
You have a Ph.D in football. So go out there and show it and be, in my terms, in football terms, the savage that you are.” - Doug Baldwin
Baldwin had a different reference. “That stiff-arm?” he said. “I did that because of Steve Smith.”
Not everything Baldwin does pays homage to Smith. But just about everything traces back to him.
He pulls up a picture on his phone: A young Baldwin kneeling for a youth football picture wearing No. 89. In Smith, Baldwin saw traits he saw in himself: aggression, a willingness to do whatever it took to succeed, an unwillingness to back down and, of course, size. There was something honorable about the way Smith played.
“He was the embodiment of me,” Baldwin said, “but at my dream level.”
In high school, Baldwin cared very much but knew very little about playing receiver. “There was just no example,” he said. “How do you put these pieces together and make it into a football player?”
His friends were drawn to Randy Moss, Terrell Owens and Chad Johnson. Baldwin couldn’t relate.
“Yeah, you could talk about Randy Moss, but I wasn’t as fast as Randy Moss,” Baldwin said. “I wasn’t tall like Randy Moss. I watched a lot of Jerry Rice’s film just to learn how to run routes, but it was so difficult to imitate him, and he didn’t play with the same body language that I wanted to play with.”
Both Smith and Baldwin are short — Baldwin is 5 feet 10, Smith is 5-9 — but Baldwin insists it wasn’t just about height. Baldwin loved Smith’s hands and stiff-arms, his violent cuts, how he looked determined to score every time he touched the ball.
But growing up, Baldwin didn’t love everything about Smith, whose combative style landed him in at least three fistfights with teammates.
“I ain’t going to lie to you, it did kind of bother me when he got into fights with his teammates,” said Baldwin, smiling, the obvious implication that he also got in a fight with one of his teammates, Percy Harvin, in 2014. “But then, being in football more at this competitive level, you realize, ‘OK, there are some times when I want to punch some of my teammates in the face.’ So I can understand.”
He met Smith during his second season in 2012. They chatted after the game, and Baldwin tried to convey how much Smith influenced him. At the same time, he felt he was competing directly against Smith.
“He came out of the tunnel, and we nodded and acknowledged each other,” Baldwin said. “But I was going to prove to him that I was worthy of wearing 89 and eventually they were going to have to look at us.”
Before he became the Seahawks’ top receiver, before he set a franchise record for receiving touchdowns in a season and tied the record for receptions, Baldwin hardly played.
It’s a story told over and over: Baldwin caught four passes as a junior at Stanford and played on the scout team. The next year he wanted vengeance.
“I just came back with a fury,” he said.
If Baldwin and Smith share a trait other than size, it’s that they both play angry. Baldwin reminds himself during games that he is a “savage,” a description easily applied to Smith. After that disappointing junior year at Stanford, Baldwin turned his fury into an unforgiving and relentless asset he has called on ever since.
“What Doug has is a very rare thing,” former Seahawks receiver Bryan Walters said.
Not surprisingly, Baldwin still draws inspiration from his college career and Smith. Everything Baldwin does before games builds toward one objective: to remind himself that he is and always has been a savage.
“It’s me trying to get myself to the place where I realize, ‘Look, Doug, you’ve put in all this work,’ ” Baldwin said. “ ‘Countless hours catching the ball, running this specific route. You have a Ph.D in football. So go out there and show it and be, in my terms, in football terms, the savage that you are.’ ”
In the locker room minutes before kickoff, he holds his phone in front of him. First, he watches Steve Smith’s highlight tape. There are two moments that always hit him.
The first is when Smith looks at the camera along the sideline and screams, “You can tell me I’m short. You can tell me I’m slow. You can tell me I can’t run. You can tell me I ain’t gonna be nothing. But I run this!” Baldwin loves that last line.
The other part is at the very end, when Smith catches a deep pass and the announcer says, “Boy, you’ve got to keep your hands on 89…”
“I feel like that’s me,” Baldwin said.
Then he pulls up his highlights from college. Partly because there aren’t good highlights of his pro career and partly as a reminder.
“The college video sets the stage for me,” he said. “This is who you are. This is who you’ve always been. This is what you’ve always been capable of.”
Baldwin didn’t emulate Smith’s personality as much as he felt emboldened to unleash his own. Over the years, Baldwin’s fire has been spewed at teammates, coaches and the media. And while he hasn’t softened — “Players would tell you no,” Baldwin said. “Coaches would tell you no.” — he has tried to refine his emotions.
“Before, it was all about me,” he said. “But now, my growth as a leader, now it’s not about me.”
There’s a part of me, a human part of me, that wants to be 60 years old, watching a Seahawks game, and they’re talking about the days back when I was playing. I want to be able to feel that. I want to know what that feels like.” - Doug Baldwin
He is the Seahawks’ most experienced and productive receiver. Other receivers, especially younger ones, monitor his body language. Does he pout after not getting the ball? Does he come back to the sideline upset?
“Then they’re going to emulate that, and I don’t want to set that example,” he said. “If it was my little brother or my son, I don’t want them to act that way.”
He has not always succeeded. Television cameras caught him flipping off offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell against the Eagles. Bevell had called for Baldwin to throw a pass inside the red zone, but Baldwin wanted to catch the pass, not throw it.
“Would I take it back?” Baldwin said, insisting the gesture was meant more as a joke. “Yes. I wouldn’t do it on the stage.”
Smith was known for playing with rage and internalizing slights. He promised “blood and guts” when he played against the Panthers after they released him in 2014. After Smith’s new team, the Ravens, beat Carolina, Smith pretended to nail a coffin closed. “You’re dead,” he snarled before adding, “Make sure you mow my lawn, too, while you’re out there.”
Baldwin knows all about Smith’s “mow my lawn” line. He, too, has thrived in chaos and combat, sometimes creating those conditions.
That’s the paradox Baldwin tries to navigate, much the same as Smith: His ferocity and desire has driven him to get better every season. But how does he manage the dimensions of those traits?
“When I first came in last year, we were doing a workout,” said Seahawks receiver Kasen Williams. “It wasn’t that serious, but he was out there with a focused mind. Everything was focused as if it was game day. That was my first impression of Doug, and when I saw that, I was like, ‘I want to be like that. I want to get to wherever he’s at.’ ”
That intensity is not easily switched off. Sometimes Baldwin will forcefully set his helmet down after a three-and-out or lash out at coaches.
“There have been times when I’ve yelled at Bev or yelled at Pete (Carroll), and thank God they’re the people they are,” Baldwin said. “They give me grace and they know it’s not personal to them so they don’t lash out at me about it.”
Well, Baldwin corrected himself, there was one time. Against Arizona last year.
“We had some issues early, and I’m screaming at Bev to get me the ball,” Baldwin said. “Normally, Bev just turns around and walks away, but then Bev turned around and goes, ‘You know what? I’m not taking this.’ I apologized to him afterward, as I always do, but in that moment we were so mad at each other. It’s the heat of the game. You’re trying so hard to win. But after the game, we laughed about it.
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“I told him I was sorry and I loved him, and he said the same thing. It wasn’t personal. What actually happens is we become closer in those moments when he sees me as fired up as I am but then I’m able to come back down to Earth and be like, ‘Hey, look, I’m sorry.’ I would run through a wall for Bev.”
For the first time last week, Baldwin’s locker was next to Devin Hester, the NFL’s most prolific returner who recently signed with the Seahawks. Baldwin gawked with receiver Paul Richardson.
“I was like, ‘Dog, that’s Devin Hester!’ ” Baldwin said. “ ‘We are in the room with a real, live football legend.’ ”
Richardson started talking with some of Seattle’s young receivers.
“Paul was cracking jokes and said, ‘Those guys are legends’ and pointing at me and Hester,” Baldwin said. “I just shrugged it off and was like, ‘Shut up, Paul’ because Paul jokes around like that. But it got me thinking, ‘Damn, do I have what it takes to be a legend in this game?’ ”
His career arc is bending. Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright called Baldwin “one of the best players on this team and he has been for a while.” Baldwin is no longer trying to make a name for himself but attempting to preserve one.
“It’s not going to matter,” he said, “but there’s a part of me, a human part of me, that wants to be 60 years old, watching a Seahawks game, and they’re talking about the days back when I was playing. I want to be able to feel that. I want to know what that feels like.”
Last season, after Smith changed his mind about retiring and decided to play another year, Baldwin reached out.
“I was like, ‘Dog, you’ve done everything. You’ve got it,’ ” Baldwin said. “He said, ‘It’s not so much about me proving anything to anybody else. It’s about me proving it to myself that I can do this again.’ And then I shut up because I know what that’s all about.”
Baldwin smiled because there was one more thing he said to his idol.
“And then I told him, I said, ‘You’re the No. 2 89 now.’”
|Doug Baldwin’s NFL career stats|