This year’s training camp returned Jon Baldwin to the scene.
Missouri Western hosted an incident still shrouded in more questions than answers last August. A locker-room fight with then-teammate Thomas Jones resulted in a broken right hand for Baldwin, an injury that derailed the wide receiver’s rookie season.
When asked about a second chance at the same camp site, Baldwin doesn’t plan to talk about the past.
“All I can do is try to get better every day,” said Baldwin, the Chiefs’ 2011 first-round draft pick (26th overall) out of Pittsburgh, “try to critique myself every day and just take what I critique onto the practice field and just continue to progress.”
Baldwin entered camp this week as the Chiefs’ de facto No. 1 wide receiver due to Dwayne Bowe’s holdout.
That slot asks a lot of a second-year player limited to 11 games last year due to the lingering injury. Baldwin made only 21 catches for 254 yards after returning to action in Week 7 following the team’s bye week.
After missing the final two weeks of training camp and the start of the regular season, Baldwin struggled to acclimate himself to the NFL and learned some difficult but simple truths.
“You’re not open as long in the NFL,” Baldwin said.
The Chiefs expected Baldwin to prominently feature in the offense during his first year.
The 6-foot-4, 230-pound physical phenom came in with a chance to work in the rotation alongside veterans Bowe and Steve Breaston. He did so after returning from the secretive scuffle that occurred in St. Joseph between Kansas City’s first and second preseason game.
But Baldwin only occasionally showed flashes of the player who warranted the Chiefs’ gamble on a player with personal conduct baggage in his past.
With Bowe indefinitely absent from training camp while waiting to sign his franchise player tender, Baldwin’s expectations have soared.
“I expect that (Baldwin) will come on and have a good year,” Chiefs coach Romeo Crennel said. “You know, last year, he had an injury, and that kind of slowed him down a little bit. But I think this offseason, he feels like he might kind of be the guy, and he sees that opportunity.”
Baldwin looked like a changed player during the offseason.
In addition to strong showings in the Chiefs’ offseason workouts, Baldwin showed a renewed dedication to fitness and training. Crennel said he came in at a lower weight and in the best shape of his short tenure with Kansas City.
The workouts extended to beyond Chiefs-mandated workouts.
Baldwin went public with his efforts, posting a lengthy video on Twitter of himself during a late-night run. He narrated the footage of himself running late at night near his high school football field in Alquippa, Pa., with self-motivational talk of dedication and hard work.
“No, I don’t watch that stuff,” Crennel said. “Whatever is out there is out there, but if he’s training and he’s working, I like that. If he produces on the field, I’ll like it even better.”
Baldwin’s Week 8 performance at home against the Chargers provided the best indicator of the player he could become.
His only game with more than three catches, Baldwin made huge plays out of the slot, including a 39-yard touchdown catch over the middle where he outjumped multiple Chargers defenders to secure the catch. He finished with five receptions for 82 yards — both season highs.
Baldwin talks of reaching that level consistency using his familiar themes of work ethic, self-evaluation and improvement.
“I’m super motivated,” he said. “There’s always motivation to just keep working hard, just critique yourself and never get complacent, never get stuck on (being one kind of player).”
A lot of questions remain.
Bowe’s return will dictate much of Baldwin’s role in the offense this year. He also must find out what the payoff of his hard work looks like in live action against NFL competition.
That starts during the three weeks of training camp.
“I think he’s taking it day to day. We have a long way to go,” Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel said.
That should include a full workload in the offseason this time, barring any unforeseen setback. Baldwin appears set on not creating any problems for himself this year.