Tuesday October 13th, 2015

While the rest of the NFL world searches for a suitable nickname befitting his improbable lower-body touchdown catch, the fourth-quarter stunner that highlighted the Browns’ dramatic 33–30 comeback victory in overtime at Baltimore on Sunday, Gary Barnidge prefers to label it a little more simply. Something along the lines of a near-drop.

“You mean the ball I honestly should have caught with both my hands?” said Barnidge on Monday, a day after his left ankle, calves, knees and thighs combined to do the work on what was unquestionably the catch of the year thus far in the NFL. “I really don’t have a name for it. I just call it more luck and awareness, really.

“One of the funniest things was when I actually caught the ball, [Browns right tackle] Mitchell Schwartz ran up to me and he said, ‘That’s a catch, that’s a catch,’ and you could see the smile on his face. It was ridiculous. It was awesome just seeing that emotion from him. It was just a great feeling all around making that play.”

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Barnidge’s 18-yard touchdown grab goes straight into the NFL highlight-reel hall of fame, that’s how incredibly absurd it was. Trailing 21–16 with 12-plus minutes to play, Browns quarterback Josh McCown retreated under a heavy Ravens blitz and lobbed up a back-footed pass in Barnidge’s direction near the Baltimore goal line. The eighth-year veteran tight end and Ravens safety Will Hill both jumped for the ball, but it went through all four hands and somehow landed on Barnidge’s left ankle as he fell to the ground on his left side, just a foot from the end zone.

That’s when Barnidge got creative.

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“I felt the ball on my leg, on my ankle, and then I think it rolled up right to where my calves were and I just squeezed,” said Barnidge, who ended up lying flat on his back as he matriculated the ball up his body. “I didn’t want it to fall off and I knew I had to get it to my hands somehow. I was trying to maneuver it to my hands, walk it up to my hands so I could get it and secure it as quickly as I could, because I saw there was a defender [cornerback Kyle Arrington] coming over too, because he saw the same thing. I knew that if I could get it up to my hands, it would be called a catch. I knew once my hands were on it, that ball’s not going anywhere.”

Talk about completing the process of a catch. Barnidge’s magic act not only gave Cleveland its first lead of the game at 22–21, it convinced his Browns teammates that somehow this would be their day, despite having faced a 21–9 third-quarter deficit in a stadium they had not won in since 2007.

“It was amazing,” said Barnidge of the Cleveland comeback, which was capped by kicker Travis Coons’s 32-yard field goal with 6:43 remaining in overtime. “You could tell on the sideline, when we were talking as an offense, everybody knew that we weren’t out of this game. Even from the beginning, when we were getting field goals instead of touchdowns, we knew we weren’t out of it. We’ve shown in the previous weeks that we can come back and make it close and have a chance to win. We just kept grinding and driving down the field and it was just an amazing feeling at the end of the game.”

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The really amazing part is that we’ve gotten this far into our story without asking the obvious question: Who the heck is Gary Barnidge and what is he doing setting single-game career highs for both catches (eight) and yards (139) in the win over Baltimore, to go with that circus-like touchdown? Every NFL season gives us unlikely heroes and sees out-of-nowhere stars emerge, but Barnidge’s work so far in 2015 ranks as the one of most startling surprises of the year.

And he’s no one-week wonder. Barnidge entered this season wearing the label of a blocking tight end, having never caught more than 13 passes in any season, with 242 yards receiving in 2009 being his best effort, to go with two touchdown catches in 2013. But this season, with former Browns Pro Bowl tight end Jordan Cameron now in Miami, Barnidge quickly has become one of McCown’s go-to targets.

Wrap your head around these unexpected numbers through Week 5:

•​ Barnidge’s 24 catches lead the Browns, and his 374 receiving yards rank second among NFL tight ends behind the PatriotsRob Gronkowski (375), who has played one fewer game.

•​ Barnidge has caught a touchdown pass in three consecutive games, making him the first Browns tight end to accomplish that feat since Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome managed it in 1983.

•​ Barnidge has at least six receptions in each of the past three games, matching Newsome’s pace-setting streak in 1984.

•​ Barnidge accounted for a sizable chunk of McCown’s 457-yard passing day against Baltimore, which set a franchise record for a team that once featured some pretty accomplished passers. McCown has thrown for an NFL-high 1,154 yards in the past three games, the most in Browns history over a three-game stretch.

No wonder second-year Browns head coach Mike Pettine has dubbed his starting tight end “Big-play Barnidge.” Cleveland’s most unlikely playmaking weapon has set a career high in catches three straight weeks and career highs in receiving yards in two of his past three games. Jordan who?

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“I feel like every year in the league I’ve been labeled as one thing or another,” said Barnidge, a fifth-round pick out of Louisville by the Panthers in 2008. “When I was drafted, I was labeled a receiving tight end. Then I went to a blocking tight end, then a receiving tight end again, and every year it goes back and forth. Nobody knows how to categorize me, but they’re trying to put me as one thing or another and I like to be known as both. I block a lot and I’m also able to run routes.

“I’ve done more blocking because I’ve been behind Pro Bowl players, but whenever you get away from that situation, then you get an opportunity and you’ve got to show what you can do.”

Being in the right place at the right time is a big part of having success in the NFL, and as his jaw-dropping catch in Baltimore showed, Barnidge’s sense of timing finally appears to be perfect. The Browns are only 2–3, but their passing game has risen to the fifth-ranked air attack in the league at 289 yards per game, and McCown is the first Cleveland quarterback in history to compile three consecutive 300-yard passing games. With 1,557 passing yards through five games, the Browns are also on pace for 4,982, which would obliterate the franchise record of 4,372, set two years ago.

I love it when a player like the 30-year-old Barnidge emerges after so many years spent either buried on a depth chart or doing the dirty work of blocking for a team that didn’t know quite what it had. Those players have largely toiled outside of the media spotlight and rank low in terms of fan adulation, so it’s got to be gratifying when their center-stage moment finally arrives. Even better, Barnidge is a potential free agent next spring, making his breakthrough season a happy confluence of events.

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“I’m not going to buy into [the Big-play Barnidge nickname],” Barnidge said. “I’m going to just keep doing what I do, show up every day, work and get better and help the team get wins. I don’t care if I get one catch, five catches or no catches. It doesn’t matter as long as we win.

“At the beginning of the year, nobody thought this team could do what we’re doing and have these kind of numbers on offense. Everybody said, ‘Oh, their offense is going to be horrible. They don’t have depth at all these positions.’ But we knew inside our building that we had the players to do what we’re doing, and what we’re showing. We’ve shown it three weeks in a row, and we’re going to keep doing it. Sunday’s game was amazing for us, and it could be a turning point for our season.”

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The deeper you dive into Barnidge’s unsung story, the more you realize his play this season might not even be his best work of the year. In 2011, he and two of his former University of Louisville cohorts—Jets offensive tackle Breno Giacomini and ex-college roommate Ahmed Awadallah—co-founded a non-profit organization called American Football Without Barriers, designed to teach the game and offer humanitarian assistance to countries abroad. Joined by as many as a dozen NFL players, such as Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch and Russell Okung, Pittsburgh’s DeAngelo Williams, and the Browns’ Alex Mack, Barkevious Mingo and Cameron, Barnidge’s charity has visited China, Brazil and Turkey the past three off-seasons, holding football camps and making a grassroots effort to grow the game in countries that aren’t known for football but do play it at some level. Next year, a trip to either Egypt or Morocco is in the works.

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“We want to teach anyone about the sport we love to play, while also making humanitarian efforts like visiting orphanages, talking to kids, and giving clothes and food to children,” Barnidge said. “It’s just an amazing experience giving back and teaching these kids, and they actually know a lot about the sport already. We’re just trying to help the sport grow internationally, and trying to get some of these kids the opportunity to get looked at by colleges here in the states because colleges don’t recruit internationally for football, like they do for basketball or baseball. We’re trying to give these kids the opportunity that we all had here in the states.”

Besides answering for me the mystery of how Lynch wound up on Turkish television talking about Seattle’s controversial play-calling at the end of the Super Bowl last off-season, hearing of Barnidge’s efforts also struck me as a ground-level companion to the NFL’s grand plan to grow the game internationally by holding regular-season games on foreign soil in places like London, Mexico and Germany. But Barnidge’s work isn’t all about tickets sold or television ratings. It’s about the people he can impact, one football camp at a time.

“We’re trying to lay the groundwork for these kids to keep developing their talents,” he said. “Hopefully eventually our colleges will look at kids in other countries, and they’ll get the chance to play the game. We’re just trying to spur that growth as much as we can while we have this platform.”

As fate would have it, Barnidge’s platform and profile seem to be growing exponentially by the week. Another highlight-reel catch or two this season, and he might reach household name status by December. No matter if he uses his hands or his legs to get the job done.

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