Baker racing past the defense
When Chris Baker gets his hand on a football, he likes to hold onto it for a while.
That's why Chad Pennington was clinging to the ball that he delivered to Baker in the back of the end zone during Sunday's initial win of the season over the Dolphins.
"Chris gave me the ball because he wanted to keep it, but he was going in on field-goal," meaning the extra-point team, Pennington said, laughing because he doesn't keep any of his TD balls. "That was not a special moment for me. I was just doing what I was told."
Baker shed a little more light on the prize pigskin after he had just completed a live interview with SNY's Steve Overmyer outside the Jets' Meadowlands locker room.
"I keep all my touchdown balls — all except for the one last week," he said. And what happened to that?
"It was Kellen [Clemens]' first touchdown pass. Unfortunately, he decided to give it back to the referee. So I've been busting him about that."
Baker also good-naturedly keeps busting the powers that be, the football gods, over his situation. It seems every time he makes a circus catch for a touchdown — or in the case of Cleveland last year, a TD catch that wasn't — reporters ask if he'd like to have a few more passes thrown his way. And he always tries to let everyone know that, yes, he wouldn't mind.
After that equally amazing glue-fingered, toe-scuffing touchdown catch at Baltimore a week earlier, he told me, "Yeah, I can do that from time to time."
Then following the Miami win, he said, "I've got to catch those every time they give it to me. I'm not sure when it's coming back."
For those games combined, Baker has one of those wacky stat lines: two catches, 7 yards, 3.5 per catch ... two touchdowns. In the past four seasons, he's averaged a touchdown better than every seven catches (71 receptions, 11 TDs).
"I've done that throughout my career in high school and college — I caught a lot of balls in college," he said of making the tough catches, the scoring grabs look easy. "That's just what I've been able to do. It's more of a reaction thing in situations like that, just reacting and trying to make plays."
His reaction to his utilization in the Jets' passing game is a purely athletic responses. He knows he can get the job done, and he wants to get it done because he knows it can help his team win.
That's why he was amped up as he swam his right arm over Dolphins safety Travares Tillman's helmet and got his arms up in the back of the middle end zone to cradle Pennington's pass aloft as if it were made of gold while he instinctively got both his feet inbounds.
"Yeah, I was the first option on that play," C-Bake said. "When we called it, I was pretty happy about it. It was a pretty important time in the game."
The Jets clearly appreciate Baker's contributions.
"I've liked the things Chris has done," head coach Eric Mangini said. "We've talked a lot about his approach to the off-season. He's done some nice things when he's had the opportunity in the passing game. He does some really good things with the running game and Thomas Jones' production yesterday, that all ties into the offensive line, Chris' work at tight end and the receivers' work on the perimeter. Chris does a really nice job blocking some guys that are in some cases substantially bigger than he is. He's a stout guy who gets good drive at the line of scrimmage."
And Baker is happy to be appreciated. Even though he hasn't become Antonio Gates in this San Diego East offense of coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, he was comfortable enough being a Jet and eager enough to see how it would work out this year that he re-signed with the Green & White after spending a few weeks as an unrestricted free agent in March.
So he's taken the approach of letting his bosses know he's still here but waiting patiently while the ball gets dished to Laveranues Coles, Jerricho Cotchery, Justin McCareins, Brad Smith, Thomas Jones and Leon Washington.
"I try not to get frustrated by it. I sit there and watch these guys like Gates, know what I mean? They're getting eight, nine, 10 balls going to them a game," he calculated. "If I have four opportunities a game, I'd be on Cloud 9.
"It's one of those things where I'll keep working, and when I do get the opportunity, I've got to make the most of it."
All the while Baker was talking in the hallway just outside the Jets' locker room, he was fondling a football, flipping it in his hands, catching it, tucking it away. The ball had a band of white athletic tape over black pretape wrapped around its middle.
It was the ball that Baker caught, that Pennington saved the day before. The tape is for marking exactly whose ball it is and what's to be printed on it in permanent calligraphic lettering. Baker may never send as many balls as Gates or Tony Gonzalez to the pigskin engraver, but he is sure to have a full trophy case of them when he's done.