KANSAS CITY, Mo. —Playing in just his second NFL game against San Diego on Monday night, Jonathan Baldwin wound up being the Chiefs' leading receiver and catching a 39-yard touchdown pass.
It might be impossible to overstate the importance of those developments, both for Baldwin and the Chiefs.
"To play like he did and make a catch like he did for the touchdown, that probably felt great for him,'' wide receiver Steve Breaston said. "It probably gave him a lot of confidence.''
Immediately, the touchdown helped the Chiefs win a huge overtime game, one that pulled Kansas City into a tie for first place in the AFC West.
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In the bigger picture, it might have done even more for the Chiefs. Ever since they lost tight end Tony Moeaki and running back Jamaal Charles for the season with injuries — they combined for 92 catches last season — the Chiefs have been searching for a reliable receiving threat other than Breaston and Dwayne Bowe.
Baldwin well could be that player.
"All it does is help everybody get open,'' Breaston said. "It helps me, it helps Dwayne, it helps the backs out of the backfield. The more weapons, especially with the losses we had earlier, this is going to be great.
"It's another target for Matt (Cassel). It helps the running game. They can't afford to put everybody in the box.''
Baldwin wasn't perfect against the Chargers. He deflected one pass that wound up being intercepted by San Diego safety Eric Weddle.
"You want to catch them all, but I didn't,'' Baldwin said. "I told Matt I owe him.''
On the whole, the Chiefs have reason to be encouraged. It appeared when Baldwin broke his thumb early in the preseason during a fight with teammate Thomas Jones that his rookie season might be wasted.
But even before he could practice, Baldwin worked on an adjacent field. He kept a copy of the practice script and would run the route required by the play being run at the same time by his teammates.
"You can't simulate the actual practices but it was a way to keep me into it,'' Baldwin said. "I got a game plan every week and I prepared as if I was playing. I took notes during meetings. That helped me out a lot because when I came back, it wasn't new to me as far as how to prepare for an NFL game.''
Breaston said, "Being off on the side, it's hard to stay in the game. He handled it well. He was always in the meetings. He was always on the field asking questions. He always had the practice script in his hand. He was always on the field when we were on the field, so when it was his time, he was ready.''
The Chiefs eased him back into his first game two weeks ago in Oakland, where he caught one pass. That turned out to be a warm-up act for the Monday night game.
"Receiver, as a rookie, is not always a slam dunk to come in and have an easy go of it,'' coach Todd Haley said. "For a big stage Monday night... he showed some gumption in being able to make some big plays for us in that game.
"I'm excited about Baldwin's development. I said that before he had a chance to play.''
The Chiefs drafted Baldwin in part because at 6-feet-4 and 230 pounds, he's bigger than most of the defensive backs who will cover him. He can be the big receiver in the middle of the field that the Chiefs lost when Moeaki injured his knee in the final preseason game at Green Bay.
"I think Steve Breaston and Dwayne Bowe are playing at a high level right now,'' Haley said. "They're making progress every week and I surely don't want to disrupt them a whole bunch and start moving them around, so to speak. But at the same time, we want to get guys involved that we believe can help us and Jonathan is a big guy and has a bunch of ability.''
Since Haley arrived in 2009, the Chiefs have imported an assortment of players who they hoped could help them improve at wide receiver. Veterans like Bobby Engram, Chris Chambers and Bobby Wade mostly failed.
This year, the Chiefs might have gotten it right. They signed Breaston and Keary Colbert, who has made some clutch catches as a third-down receiver.
Baldwin's return gives them as deep a group of receivers as they've had in years.
"I think as coaches you want everything to continue to get better but that doesn't necessarily mean changing personnel,'' Haley said. "I'm very comfortable with the guys we have on our team at that position.''