The last year has not been perfect in the marriage of Wes Welker and the Patriots. There have been Super Bowl-winning completions gone awry, strained contract negotiations, and reordering of depth charts.
But all it takes is that one moment, one season for both sides to realize why they fell for each other in the first place. Sometimes things happen for a reason. Maybe 2012 was that way for Welker and the Patriots. Because right now, it’s a lovefest between both sides.
While everyone else got hurt and missed games, Welker was there.
“To be able to go out there and do it week after week against all the different coverages, all the different matchups that we see and all that, it’s a real credit to Wes’s ability but also his toughness and his durability because he’s taken a lot of hits out there,” coach Bill Belichick said.
And the Patriots keep finding ways to put Welker in good positions to make plays.
“I will say, Bill gets the most out of me, and I appreciate that,” Welker said. “And it never stops. I understand it and I’m cool with it and I think we have a good relationship.”
Perhaps, one that will endure long after this season.
To this day, Welker and Tom Brady still haven’t discussed The Pass in last February’s Super Bowl. Not even privately. And they certainly aren’t going to do it now, leading up to Sunday’s divisional playoff game against the Texans.
“I’m just worried about getting ready for Houston,” Welker said.
“We’re just trying to get better and work hard at things and, yeah, I wish I completed every pass I threw in every game that I played, but I don’t,” Brady said. “But it doesn’t keep me from feeling as confident about this week’s game.”
Combine the Super Bowl with Welker’s 12 drops through 13 games this season (none since), and Welker drew his fair share of criticism. Brady, however, has no problem with Welker’s ability to catch passes, in any situation, in any game.
“That’s part of playing,” Brady said. “I think what’s most impressive about Wes is his ability to move on to the next play. So if he drops a ball, then he’s clearly not dropping another one, and I don’t lose any confidence. If Wes doesn’t lose confidence, I don’t lose confidence.”
Of course, focusing on just the drops — ProFootballFocus.com has Welker for 15 — misses a lot of context. Welker was fourth in the league with 166 targets. Of the top-10 targeted receivers, only Welker called the middle of the field his offense. Calvin Johnson (14 drops), Brandon Marshall (13), Steve Johnson (11), Demaryius Thomas (11), Reggie Wayne (10), A.J. Green (10), Larry Fitzgerald (five), and Roddy White (four) are boundary receivers. They have much less to worry about, and Brady said that explains the greatness of Welker.
“He’s fearless. I think that’s No. 1,” Brady said. “To run across the middle of the field full speed while looking at the quarterback . . . you know, just think about that. There are 240-, 250-pound guys in there that are looking to take his head off, and he’s just fearless. That’s a very rare gift. It’s hard to comprehend a lot of the time. There are a lot of things going on there in the middle of the field on a down-by-down basis and what he’s able to do with his body, I think that’s what I admire most.”
There were times this season when it looked as if Welker wouldn’t get back up, battling foot and ankle injuries that were much worse than he let on. That will happen when you’ve caught 768 passes in eight years, and are 31 years old. But Welker always answers the bell.
“I put a lot of emphasis on myself to be tough, and try and be the toughest player in the NFL,” Welker said. “I think I have to do that to make up for a lot of other things as far as my size and everything else. I’m constantly telling myself to tough it out and be tough. I think it has served me well.”
You wonder where the Patriots would be this season without Welker. Aaron Hernandez missed the better part of seven games. Rob Gronkowski missed five, and played one with one arm. Julian Edelman missed seven, and Deion Branch six.
Yet the Patriots still set an NFL record with 444 first downs, scored 67 touchdowns (fourth-best all time), led the league with 557 points (third-most in league history), and their 6,846 yards were fifth all time.
Welker, who became the only receiver in league history with five 100-catch seasons (118 in 2012), was in uniform for all of those marks.
“When you think of dependability, you think of Wes,” Brady said. “Not only him being out there, but him running the right route, reading the right coverage, breaking at the right time, making a catch, making the defender miss, getting the first down, knowing the situation. I mean, that’s just what separates him as a player is his ability to process all these different things. Wes commits himself every day to being out on the field, but not only the game field but the practice field. All of Wes’s decisions in his life are based around being out playing, and I think that’s why he’s so good at what he does.”
You can’t help but wonder if Hernandez getting hurt in Week 2 against the Cardinals made all of this possible.
The game plan against Arizona, according to team sources, called for Welker, the man who averaged 63.7 snaps per game in 2011, to play 15 to 30 snaps against the Cardinals.
Welker was going to back up the unheralded Edelman and only see the field with regularity in three-receiver sets. The Patriots’ preferred “12” personnel package would feature running back Stevan Ridley, tight ends Gronkowski and Hernandez, and Brandon Lloyd and Edelman at receiver. No one but Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels knows the reason why.
In theory, the Patriots’ plan made sense. Welker, Hernandez and Gronkowski all do their best work in the middle of the field. But defenses could combat that, clogging that area like the Jets did in their 2010 playoff victory over the Patriots, and the Giants did in the Super Bowl.
Replacing Welker with Edelman — who deserved an increase in playing time because he was the team’s best receiver after the catch — and moving him to the perimeter, would give the Patriots’ offense better balance horizontally and spread out the middle for Hernandez and Gronkowski.
And if Hernandez didn’t get rolled up on by, coincidentally, Edelman, on the third play from scrimmage, and the Patriots went onto a blowout victory against the Cardinals with their new lineup, it’s possible Welker might have stayed in that role, and landed on the trading block as a No. 3 receiver making $9.515 million.
But Hernandez missed six of the next eight games with a high ankle sprain, and the Patriots needed Welker to resume his role in the slot.
It probably saved the Patriots from themselves. While the theory was sound, in actuality, defenses were happy to let Brady make a living throwing to Lloyd and Edelman while doubling Hernandez and Gronkowski, since they didn’t have to worry about Welker.
An inside receiver
If any of this bothered Welker, he did not tell Brady, his best friend.
“He always seems like he’s in good spirits to me,” Brady said. “That’s part of his mental toughness. He never lets on to anyone how he’s feeling.”
There are many receivers in this league, especially those looking for their first and last big contract extensions, who would have openly had a problem with the type of role change the Patriots had entertained, temporary or not. But not Welker.
“In any season, there are a lot of ups and downs and you understand it’s a long season,” Welker said. “You understand that if you keep doing the things you’ve always done, things work out the way they’re supposed to. So far here we are, and we’re the No. 2 seed and getting ready for the Houston Texans. And there’s still work to be done.”
You get the feeling now that Welker remaining with the Patriots beyond this season could happen. If anyone — inside or outside the organization — was guilty of pegging Welker as too old, just a slot receiver, a product of the system, not a good enough run blocker, or whatever other box you can think of, Welker seemed to bust through all of those. Not that Welker would boast of proving his doubters wrong.
“I don’t think about that,” he said. “I just think about my job and what I have to do to get better and help my team.”
Brady was asked if he would like to finish his Patriots career together with Welker. The quarterback steers clear of contract issues, but Brady knows he and Welker have a perfect on-field marriage. The 2012 season, as rocky as it appeared at times between Welker and the team, should have proved that to all involved.
“I played with a lot of great players, whether that was Kevin Faulk or Randy Moss or Rodney Harrison, but Wes has been truly the greatest teammate you could possibly have,” Brady said. “His commitment to the team, his selflessness . . . When Wes clears out on a route, he clears out the route better than anybody I’ve ever seen. He knows he’s not getting the ball, but he almost takes as much pride in that as he does on the 6-yard option route to get open. That’s everything you need to know about Wes, you know? That’s the best part about him. Whatever you need me to do, that’s what he’s going to do. He does it every day in practice, and I feel that’s what has always set him apart.”Greg A. Bedard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.