If there was one game that epitomized wide receiver Doug Baldwin's career with the Seattle Seahawks -- what he meant to their offense, the passion with which he played and what he was to quarterback Russell Wilson -- it was a 2017 victory over the New York Giants.
Baldwin finished with nine catches for 92 yards and caught the go-ahead touchdown. It came on a play in which the Giants brought a cover zero blitz, something the two exploited countless times during their seven seasons together. Showing ultimate trust in his longtime No. 1 receiver, Wilson floated a pass deep down the middle of the field -- where no safety remained in coverage -- before Baldwin had gotten more than three yards beyond the line of scrimmage and before he had so much as a half-step on cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
About an hour earlier, Baldwin lost his cool on the sideline following a few lousy possessions. Cameras showed him shoving assistant coach Tom Cable while yelling toward Wilson amid a huddle of offensive players. He wasn't upset at Cable, who had been instructed by coach Pete Carroll to address the group. He was frustrated by the offense's execution and felt it was on Wilson, not a coach, to set everyone straight.
"We had the playcalls; we just didn't execute," Baldwin said postgame. "Whether it was passing the ball, blocking, catching, jumping offsides, false starting, whatever it may be, we weren't executing as players, and to me there is nothing a coach can say. We have to take accountability for that."
The apparent end of Baldwin's career because of multiple injuries leaves Wilson without the most trusted and prolific receiver he has ever known. For better or worse, it also leaves Wilson without perhaps his toughest critic, the player who held him accountable more than anyone else.
"Borderline contentious" was how former Seahawks quarterback Jake Heaps described Baldwin's atypical relationship with Wilson. Heaps was with the Seahawks during parts of two offseasons and had a stint on their practice squad in 2016. He is now business partners with Wilson, helping run the Russell Wilson Passing Academy, and co-hosts on 710 ESPN Seattle.
"He wanted to make sure that Russell was performing at his very best at all times, and anything less than that was unacceptable to him," Heaps said of Baldwin. "So where you see traditional receivers, No. 1 receivers, is you see them as divas, as guys that are complaining about not getting the ball in their hands -- and Doug at times did do that, but it was more than that. It was more you saw Doug Baldwin complaining about the offense not living up to its potential ... or demanding is maybe the better word -- demanding that Russell plays better, and that's a different accountability level that you see. That's just a different dynamic than what you're accustomed to seeing in football and in the NFL."
Heaps noted for as demanding as Baldwin was of Wilson, he also was supportive and reassuring.
"It wasn't that they hated each other by any stretch of the imagination," Heaps said, "but there was constant friction between the two of them and mostly from Doug's side of things."
Did you notice who went unmentioned and unpictured in the series of farewell tweets Baldwin wrote after his release from the Seahawks earlier this month? The veteran quarterback he referred to was Tarvaris Jackson. Jackson was Seattle's starter in 2011 when Baldwin became the first undrafted rookie to lead his team in receiving since the AFL-NFL merger. It was a remarkable start for a player who, a few months earlier, was interviewing for jobs with Dropbox and other San Francisco Bay area companies during the NFL's lockout, not knowing if he would play football again.
"It wasn't that they hated each other by any stretch of the imagination, but there was constant friction between the two of them and mostly from Doug's side of things." Jake Heaps
When Wilson was drafted the next year, it meant an adjustment for Baldwin, who was going from pocket passers in Jackson and Andrew Luck at Stanford to a quarterback prone to ad-libbing. Once Baldwin and Wilson got on the same page, they were on their way to becoming one of the most prolific connections of their era. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, Wilson's 436 completions to Baldwin are the fourth most of any quarterback-receiver duo since Wilson entered the league in 2012.
Their on-field chemistry was never more evident than in 2015, when Baldwin tied for the league lead with 14 touchdown receptions. That included a video-game-like stretch of 11 scores over five games in the second half of the season.
"We got really hot," Wilson said recently while reminiscing about his time with Baldwin. "That was pretty cool."
Wilson also spoke of a "fire" in Baldwin "that you didn't see in anybody else."
"Going to miss his leadership," Wilson said. "I'm going to miss his work ethic. He's a guy who would catch a slant route and run to the house every time at practice. He would practice and play hurt where other guys would be sitting. He knew the game; he studied the game. Nobody worked harder than he did. He also was a great coach on the field. He really coached the other players, other wideouts and also me too."
With Baldwin gone, Tyler Lockett becomes Wilson's top target, a role Lockett began ascending to last season. Lockett and Jaron Brown are Seattle's only wideouts with more than three years of NFL experience. That group also includes David Moore, a 2017 seventh-rounder, and 2019 draft picks DK Metcalf, Gary Jennings and John Ursua.
Lockett set career highs last year with 57 catches for 965 yards and 10 touchdowns. Wilson had a perfect passer rating and didn't throw an interception while targeting Lockett. The way Heaps sees it, Wilson has developed the type of on-field chemistry with Lockett similar to that of Baldwin. But the mild-mannered Lockett isn't going to challenge Wilson like Baldwin would.
"It's something that's completely hard to replicate," Heaps said. "It has to be ingrained in who you are and that's your personality, and they don't have that guy. Tyler is an incredible player, but he is a positive, upbeat attitude, and you're not going to see that back-and-forth between the two of them. There's going to be communication there, but to have that tension and that friction between quarterback and receiver, you're not going to have that on this roster."
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The Seahawks would have loved for a healthy Baldwin to come back for his ninth season in 2019. Similarly, they might have kept Richard Sherman for at least the final year of his contract in 2018 had he not torn his Achilles tendon. But with those departures and others over the past two seasons, the Seahawks locker room is more aligned behind Wilson.
"They lead them in completely different ways," Heaps said of that trio. "It's not right or wrong. It's different. And so I think that from what you saw last year and what you're going to see moving forward is less tension, more camaraderie on both sides of the ball. I think moving forward with Russell and his $35 million-a-year contract, really what it signifies is this is Russell's team through and through. So, you're not going to have receivers calling him out, trying to hold him accountable, do this and that like he's your little brother.
"Russell is the big brother now. Russell is the guy. He's the face of the franchise. And as Russ goes and as Russ says, everybody else follows suit."