ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — Matt Cassel was napalmed. The ball came out of the Kansas City Chief quarterback’s hands like a Bugs Bunny cartoon change-up, wobbling on this short and high arc, as if served by a badminton racket. Michael Adams had him dead to rights.
Adams, the Arizona Cardinals cornerback, almost immediately recognized that the pass was comically underthrown. He closed quickly to a comfy spot near the sideline, boxed out the receiver, set his feet, and waited for glory.
Only it never came. As the ball descended, a pair of giant arms suddenly stretched across Adams’ shoulders from behind and plucked it out of the sky, inches before the defender could grasp what, by position, seemed to be rightfully his. It was the perfect reach-around.
In a basketball game, this cute little stunt might’ve drawn a foul call for going over the back. On the practice field, seen in person by an estimated crowd of some 3,000 Tuesday at Missouri Western State, it was positively stupefying. Another notch on Jon Baldwin’s preseason belt.
“He tells me where he wants me to be on certain things and we talk back and forth,” Baldwin, the Chiefs’ big receiver, explained after bailing Cassel out during a simulated 2-minute drill. “It makes the communication a lot better with him. He understands where I’m going to on certain routes. I know here he’s going to put the ball on certain routes. That makes it a lot better for the both of us.”
Jon Baldwin is listed at 6-foot-4. The Legend Of Jon Baldwin is big enough right now to give King Kong a wedgie.
“You know, he’s always had that ability — you know, his uncanny ability to make plays, (to) high-point the ball,” Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals’ Pro Bowl receiver, the gold standard for the position, said of Kansas City’s sophomore sensation. “He’s much faster than you think he is down the field. So I’m not surprised by his success. And I know he’s going to be a special player for years to come.”
Master and pupil shared the stage Tuesday, as the Chiefs and Cardinals — exhibition dance partners Friday in Kansas City’s preseason opener — held a rare joint practice on the fields adjacent to Spratt Stadium. In one corner, you had Fitzgerald, 28, doing his hands-of-glue routine; in the other was Baldwin, 22, and his aerial gymnastics. Old money and new money, shining in the heat.
“(With) some physical characteristics you see similarity — big guys that can catch, that make in college those huge plays,” Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt allowed. “But I’m one that’s very hesitant to compare players, especially ones that have played in the league for a while, and played it at a high level.
“I’m not going to take anything away from Jonathan — he’s a talented young player. But, you know, I’ve been around Larry for six years now, and it’s hard to compare.”
It is. And yet, by the same token, it’s not too tough to see where Baldwin, in just his second NFL season, wants to go. The lithe receiver grew up in the Steel City where, as an eighth grader, he watched the 6-foot-3 Fitzgerald shred the Pittsburgh Panthers’ record book. It planted a seed, the kind of dominance that persuaded Baldwin to switch his primary focus from the hardwood to the gridiron. He even followed in Fitzgerald’s footsteps to Pitt, where Baldwin abused the Big East from 2008 through 2010 before being plucked by the Chiefs in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft.
Fitzgerald is Baldwin’s mentor and muse; his model for production, work ethic, and want-to. It’s not the easiest path — Baldwin recently posted a video to the web that featured him working out in the middle of the night, chanting like a fiend — but the rewards are starting to emerge, bit by bit, between the hash marks.
“He takes his weaknesses and turns them into strengths,” Chiefs receivers coach Nick Sirianni said of Baldwin. “He comes to practice every day, just like all of our guys. He’s a professional, trying to improve every day … all he can do right now is not worry about anything except himself, to continue to get better.”
Worry has given way to confidence, to comfort. A year after a brawl with then-teammate Thomas Jones ruined his wrist and sidetracked the 2011 campaign, Baldwin is the talk of St. Joe. His circus catches have become a weekly, if not daily, occurrence since Organized Team Activities (OTAs) were opened to the media this past spring.
And while Dwayne Bowe’s long-term contract impasse and subsequent holdout turned him into a ghost, Baldwin has had Cassel pretty much all to himself. The more miles logged with the first-team offense, the stronger the bond.
Baldwin reportedly totes a pair of 10-inch hands and a wingspan of nearly 80 inches; that’s roughly the same reach as Washington Wizards guard and St. Louis native Bradley Beal. When you’re carrying the kind of mitts that can make bad passes look good — see Tuesday afternoon — a quarterback will have no qualms about trying to find you in a pinch.
“The main thing is trust,” Baldwin explained. “One thing I always say to (Cassel) is that I’m going to try to make every play possible. He understands that, and just gives me a chance to make a play. You try to make as many plays as I possibly can for him.”
Whisenhunt noticed. Arizona’s media contingent noticed. Fitzgerald noticed. Hell, it was hard not to.
“You know, he’s representing,” Fitzgerald said, smiling. “Everybody knows that he’s got unbelievable athletic ability and they know the potential is there. And you know, with Matt Cassel back healthy again and this team, with Jamaal Charles and the backs back there, I mean, (there) are going to be some opportunities for him to make plays. So I’m looking forward to seeing (it).”
It may be hard to compare. But it’s awfully easy on the eyes.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org