OWINGS MILLS — The strutting flamboyance, elaborate end-zone pirouettes and a certain swagger have defined Kelley Washington’s approach to football in a way that contrasts his soft-spoken, humble nature off the field.
For the Baltimore Ravens’ imposing wide receiver, it’s just the way he expresses himself through his sport.
And it’s understandable that Washington might want to release some emotions after toiling for four years as an obscure minor league baseball player before attending the University of Tennessee and spending another six years largely on the bench behind NFL luminaries like Chad Ochocinco and Randy Moss.
"When I go out there, I go into a little different mindset," Washington said. "I’m a man playing a kids’ game. I treat it like a kid in the backyard out there playing. That’s how I play. That’s how I’m always going to play until my last play.
"As long as I’m making plays and getting guys into it, I’m pretty much accepted. I’m never going to do anything that goes overboard. I’ve always been the kind of player that shows emotions, the good and the bad. That’s just me."
For Washington, it’s not a grab for attention as much as it comes off as a career journeyman and special-teams contributor who’s overjoyed now that he’s finally unshackled from the bench and healthy after years of dealing with injuries.
Washington has emerged as one of the top surprises for the Ravens’ third-ranked offense, quieting concerns about the depth of the receiving corps.
He’s tied with two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver Derrick Mason and starting running back Ray Rice for the team lead in receptions with seven. And he’s ranked atop the Ravens’ receiving yardage list with 101 yards through two games.
When the Ravens signed Washington after a minicamp tryout that included Jerry Porter and Tab Perry, they were mainly considering him as a potential special-teams asset.
However, he has become an important part of the offense after beating out Demetrius Williams for the third wide receiver job.
“We try not to put a limitation on a guy,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “If you go back to Kelley’s history, he was a guy that there were a lot of high hopes for as a receiver. For whatever, reason it just didn’t latch on as far as stats and all that stuff go.
“We always thought he had the ability to be a great receiver in this league. I wouldn’t say we’re surprised, but we’re sure happy about it."
Washington caught four passes for 58 yards during a 31-26 win Sunday over the San Diego Chargers. He converted a pair of third downs with receptions of 11 and 18 yards.
His most notable catch took place on a 27-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Joe Flacco where he pretended to block on a screen play before accelerating downfield all by himself to gather in Flacco’s lob.
"He’s exciting and he has a lot of fun out there," Flacco said. "So, we love having him around and he’s definitely been a great receiver for us throughout the preseason and the first two games. I think he’s just a big, physical guy who goes up and catches the ball.
"He’s got great hands. Anytime you’ve got a receiver that can catch the ball, you know you can put it anywhere for him. It makes it a lot easier on me."
That score marked Washington’s first touchdown since Sept. 17, 2006 when he was with the Cincinnati Bengals, the team that drafted him in the third round out of Tennessee in 2003.
And he punctuated the score with his "Squirrel Dance," spinning and shaking in the end zone.
Celebrating after scores by dancing ever since his Pop Warner days as he emulated Deion Sanders, Washington said he’s done cutting a rug on the NFL turf.
"My dancing career is over with," Washington said. "It’s something I’ve been doing since I was a little kid growing up, just being excited about playing.
“I’ve always done that at every level. I’ve always been a player who showed a lot of emotion. I remember watching Deion high-stepping and his smile. That’s who I idolized."
Washington also had the presence of mind to avoid an excessive celebration penalty by motioning his teammates away from him after the score.
"That was very nice of him, very smart of him," Mason said. "It’s Kelley, man. He’s out there enjoying football and having fun.
“He’s found himself a niche on this team where he can go out there not only on special teams, but being a big contributor for us on offense when he comes out there on third down and he’s making those huge catches for us."
Washington didn’t always have a lot of reasons to be so happy, though.
During his first six NFL seasons, the 6-foot-3, 217-pounder registered 73 career receptions for 896 yards and nine touchdowns.
Washington, 30, has been something of a late bloomer as a receiver, catching a career-high 31 passes for 378 yards and three touchdowns with Cincinnati in 2004.
"I don’t feel that way," Washington said. "I think I’ve shown spurts of being a good receiver. It’s just the opportunity hasn’t always been there. I’ve always been around a dominant No. 1 or No. 2 receiver. That happens a lot where players don’t get the opportunity.
"I think this is my opportunity to prove that I’m a quality receiver in this league. I knew once I had an opportunity that talent can’t be hidden. This was a way for me to show what I could do."
Washington has traditionally thrived on special teams, blocking a kick last season with the New England Patriots while catching one pass.
He has registered 27 career special-teams tackles, including a career-high 18 stops in New England two years ago.
"I knew if it wasn’t going to happen playing receiver that I was going to be a dominant special-teams player," Washington said. "That’s always been my mentality. I’m not just a receiver. I’m a football player. It was just a matter of time before I would produce as a receiver."
Washington learned a lot about acquiring patience during his four years with the Florida Marlins’ minor league system.
The former 10th-round draft pick and roommate of current Boston Red Sox pitcher Josh Beckett batted .213 with nine home runs and 98 RBIs in 295 games as a shortstop and third baseman.
His success now is a testament to his willingness to wait for his chance.
"It’s been a long road," Washington said. "I’m very happy for the road I’ve taken with all of those long bus rides and those sub .200 batting averages. That all prepared me for not playing receiver in the league right away.
"It really helped me a lot. Sometimes, you have to wait. Once you get that opportunity, you have to shine. This year is a chance for me to show what I have because this opportunity might not come again in my career."
Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.