By Herbie Teope
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Jon Baldwin stands an imposing 6-4, 230 pounds, making it difficult not to notice the second-year wide receiver unless the person looking for him on game day is a Chiefs quarterback.
Baldwin impressed during the offseason, taking advantage of Dwayne Bowe’s absence from organized team activities (OTAs) and the first weeks of training camp. His jaw-dropping catches led many to believe Baldwin would join a long line of NFL wide receivers that experienced a spike in production during their second season.
Unfortunately, the expectations haven’t translated to regular-season success. It wasn’t supposed to be this way for a promising player the Chiefs selected as a first-round pick (26th overall) in the 2011 NFL draft.
Baldwin has been targeted just 31 times in 10 games, averaging 3.1 looks per game, resulting in 16 catches for 224 yards with zero touchdowns entering Week 13. He’s making 1.6 catches per game and has been held without a catch twice this season.
Ask Baldwin directly why he hasn’t been involved in the offense and the result is a standard, corporate-type response.
“Receiver is a position that you know you’re not going to get the ball every play,” Baldwin said. “It comes in flurries. All you can do at practice is keep preparing the same way, so when you do get those opportunities you’re not stunned. You’re always prepared.”
Yet, the Chiefs’ use of Baldwin remains one of many head-scratching aspects of a dismal 1-10 season. And this is especially true when considering the offense remains allergic to the endzone, a streak without a touchdown now at 11 quarters, and the clear need exists for a downfield option alongside Bowe.
Outside of the running backs and tight ends, the disparity of targets among the Chiefs' wide receivers through Week 12 tells a story: Bowe leads the team with 105 looks; Dexter McCluster, who works mostly out of the slot, is second with 56; Baldwin’s 31 targets is third; Steve Breaston, who has been a healthy inactive in two of the last three games, is fourth with 15; and Terrance Copper (9), Jamar Newsome (3) and Devon Wylie (2) round out the wide receiver corps.
When it comes to the Chiefs' wide receivers, it’s Bowe as the first option, McCluster the check-down, and then let the chips fall where they may with everybody else.
“They’re doing a good job of getting open and doing their assignment,” current Chiefs starting QB Brady Quinn said of his wide receivers. “It’s up to me as the quarterback to give them a good ball and I try to make plays for them.”
Of course, the Chiefs’ offense revolves around RB Jamaal Charles, who leads the league’s fourth-best running game (145.6 yards per game). However, Baldwin’s lack of chances to produce when the Chiefs take to the air is puzzling.
Baldwin’s quiet season could be attributed to the QB carousel, as the Chiefs have shuffled from Matt Cassel to Quinn to Cassel to Quinn again. But Baldwin quickly shot that theory down.
“We all communicate the same — Matt and Brady — we always talk the same,” Baldwin said. “If either one of those guys are starting, we just always communicate with each other. They both prepare the same way, so it really doesn’t make a difference.”
Nevertheless, questions surrounding Baldwin have been posed to Chiefs head coach Romeo Crennel with increased frequency in the past month.
Crennel hasn’t responded with the uncertainty sometimes heard in weekly media sessions this season. While Crennel might not have initially known why Charles received just five carries in a Week Eight loss to the Raiders, he’s vividly aware Baldwin has been missing in action.
“We have to get Jon more involved than we’ve had him involved and give him an opportunity to be a playmaker for us,” Crennel said on Nov. 5. “That’s one of the things we’re going to try to work on.”
The Chiefs' quarterbacks apparently didn’t receive Crennel’s memo. Baldwin had four targets from Cassel and Quinn in two games, catching one pass for 11 yards in Week 10. He sat out Week 11 with a head injury.
Meanwhile, Newsome, a practice-squad player signed to the active roster, had more targets (three) and catches (one) than Baldwin (one target for no catches) in Week 12’s loss to the Broncos.
“He [Baldwin] was open on one play, but Brady went the other way,” Crennel said. “If he would have gone to Jon, it might have been a touchdown.”
So, are the problems caused by a lack of chemistry between Baldwin and the quarterbacks?
“Every time you go through practice, Jon has worked very hard during practice,” Crennel said. “When I looked at him in the offseason and what he was able to do in the offseason, they seemed to trust him quite a bit there and we’ve still got the same quarterbacks.”
Ultimately, a wide receiver is often only as good as the player responsible for getting him the ball. There won’t be much arguing the Chiefs possess one of the league’s worst QB situations.
With Cassel and Quinn, the Chiefs’ passing offense ranks 29th in the league, gaining a paltry 190.5 yards per game with a league-low six TD passes.
Still, the remaining five games offer three defenses currently ranked in the bottom half of the league against the pass — Browns (21st), Raiders (24th), Colts (19th) — should the Chiefs attack down the field.
And Crennel’s vision for the final stretch at least includes Baldwin.
“He’s going to be out there and if the ball comes to him, we expect him to make the play,” Crennel said. “I cannot guarantee that the ball is going to go him, but when the ball comes to him, you make the play.”
In the meantime, it’s difficult to properly assess what the Chiefs have in Baldwin given his lack of production.
The impressive offseason catches have been replaced with weekly uninspiring box scores, leading critics to label Baldwin a first-round bust. But while those grumblings grow louder with each passing week, none of it fazes Baldwin.
“I don’t listen to any of that stuff,” he said.
Regardless of what happens in the remaining five games, Baldwin said he’ll prepare like he’s done every week this season.
“All you can do is keep working hard at practice,” Baldwin said. “When the opportunity presents itself, you've just got to be ready. That’s all you can do.”
Herbie Teope is the Chiefs correspondent for Pro Football Weekly.