DALLAS -- As Washington Redskins defensive end Chris Baker chatted with a reporter in a hallway near the visitors' locker room Sunday, coach Jay Gruden walked past, showered and ready for the bus ride to the airport. He spotted Baker, smiled and said without breaking stride, “Big money!”
To which Baker replied with a smile and, “Yes, sir!”
He could just as easily have said, “Cha-ching.”
Here’s why: Baker's third-quarter sack was his sixth of the season, earning him a $280,000 bonus.
“That’s all I could think about this week was getting that one sack,” Baker said. “I worked so hard this year. I’ve been sitting on five sacks for [four] weeks so I finally got through and got the sack and all I could say was, ‘Thank you Lord.'"
It not only represented a hefty pay day, but also the continuation of a long football journey. It started with Baker being expelled from Penn State, entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2009 and spending five years working his way up to become a starter.
The Redskins weren’t sure if he’d reach this point, which is one reason they signed Stephen Paea in the offseason. But Baker outplayed Paea this summer and early in the season, and finally bumped him from the starting lineup in Week 5. Baker’s development is one reason the Redskins improved their win total by five games en route to the NFC East title.
“I said this a long time ago, but God positions you in certain situations,” Baker said. “My first couple years I always wanted to play, but I felt God was saying, ‘I’m going to show you how to be successful.’ Each year I got more experienced and this was the year God said it was my time. So I was going to go out there and take advantage of it.”
Baker’s ability to penetrate was evident in the past, though earlier in his career he sometimes took himself out of plays by only wanting to burst through (when he was being asked to maintain a gap). But the Redskins’ new one-gap scheme for the linemen fits his style. Plus he learned how to read and anticipate defenses -- other linemen also credit nose tackle Terrance Knighton for his quick on-field reads.
Baker said he started noticing offenses paying him more attention after a two-sack game against the Eagles in Week 4. Lines slid his way a little more often.
“People started saying, ‘Who the hell is Chris Baker?'" he said. “But we just did a good job working together as a front. A lot of times when I got sacks it wasn’t that I had a great move -- sometimes I got upfield and Ryan [Kerrigan] beat his man inside and I covered him and the quarterback was just sitting right there.”
Playing with childhood buddy Knighton also helped him this season. Growing up they dreamt of playing in the NFL; once they arrived the dream turned to playing on the same team.
But for Baker, 2015 was mostly just another step in his growth as a player.
“I’ve matured a lot,” he said. “I’m playing well this year. I understand the defense. I’m one of the older guys now. A lot of guys look up to me. It always helps to play well; when you play well guys look up to you.”
While it was Baker who earned the bonus Sunday, it’s the Redskins who cashed in all season with his performance.