Sam Baker played for Pete Carroll at USC, but that didn't keep him from… (Dave Martin / Associated…)
As Atlanta's left tackle and a former four-year starter at USC, Sam Baker catches a lot of good-natured grief around Falcons headquarters about his unwavering admiration of Pete Carroll.
That was ramped up last week as the Falcons prepared to play Carroll's Seattle Seahawks in the divisional round of the playoffs.
So Baker playfully fired back at teammates and coaches by carrying around a copy of Carroll's book and making reference to it, whether the reference was legitimate or not.
Dirk Koetter, Falcons offensive coordinator, wanted to put in a new wrinkle?
"Oh, yeah," Baker would jab, "that play's in Chapter 2 of Coach Carroll's book."
Assistant coach Pat Hill wanted to work on a certain blocking scheme for his offensive line?
"Didn't you read Chapter 6?" Baker would joke.
Evidently, a little levity was good for an Atlanta franchise that was 0-3 in playoff games under Coach Mike Smith. With their last-second 30-28 victory over Seattle, the Falcons set the stage for Sunday's NFC championship game against San Francisco at the Georgia Dome.
This season has been particularly gratifying for Baker, the 21st pick in 2008, because he finally feels healthy. He has played every snap after injuries sidelined him for much of the 2011 season and eventually led to his losing his starting job. He played in 12 games in 2011, starting only six.
"I had a lot of weird injuries, stuff that was tough to overcome, and luckily the Falcons stuck with me," said Baker, who has had multiple ankle, elbow and back injuries, and twice gritted his way back onto the field within weeks of undergoing in-season back surgery.
"You're wondering through the process how you're going to do it. … It's tough, man, but I'm just so happy to be healthy now and have that kind of behind me."
In protecting Matt Ryan's blind side, Baker helped the quarterback set franchise records for attempts (615), completions (422), completion percentage (68.6), yards (4,719) and touchdowns (32) this season.
After the tumult of last season, when Baker's future with the franchise was in doubt, he got a call from Smith, who was going to be in Southern California — where Baker and his family were — and wanted to meet for dinner.
"I wasn't sure what it was about," he said. "I know how this business works, and I know it could have gone one of two ways."
Instead of telling Baker the team was headed in a different direction, Smith told him the Falcons believed in him and wanted the rehabilitating lineman to take his time, get his body right, spend extra time with his wife, Antoinette, and newborn son, Gunnar, then get ready for the 2012 season.
"It meant a lot to me just to hear him say that," Baker said, "and that he still believed in me."
Smith's gesture was particularly impressive to David Baker, Sam's father and the former commissioner of the Arena Football League, who in that role worked closely with the NFL for many years.
"The NFL is a fear-driven league," the elder Baker said. "You don't get a lot of people telling you they believe in you. I thought it was so unusual for them to do that, and so special. I know for Sam, it made him want to do everything he can for Coach Smith, for the organization, for his teammates in that locker room."
And Baker had a chance to formally voice his feelings last Sunday, in the end zone before the Seattle game. The offensive line appointed him to deliver the pregame speech to the position group before warmups.
"I started off by joking about Pete Carroll," Baker said. "I said he gave me the greatest five years of my life. But then I got serious and said, 'Until the five years when I met you guys.' I just told them how much I loved them, and how much I was going to give it up for them. As a lineman, you don't play for anybody else but your brother next to you. That's what it was about."