Swear at me all you want, or tell me I’m an idiot. It’s probably warranted. Yet, I promise you, if you look at the way the Patriots have won over the years, the rules they swear by and the general way in which they run their organization, Wes Welker is as expendable to them today as Matthew Slater would be if his contract was up.
“The Patriots Way” has its benefits. Winning regularly, for one, is a nice perk. Showing loyalty, and signing the players long term that got you to that point? Not so much. People always say that professional sports are a business, and there’s no team anywhere in the world that takes that as literally as the New England Patriots do.
Let’s look at the facts: Wes Welker has been the most prolific receiver in the NFL since he joined the Patriots in 2007. He’s been one of the best receivers in the league during that time, regardless of designation (outside, slot, whatever), and he’s also been one of the toughest. He came back from a torn ACL much faster than any human should, and he takes more hits than anybody his size ever should.
Without Wes Welker and his contributions, the Patriots wouldn’t have been to two Super Bowls since he’s been on the team, and they wouldn’t have been an upper-echelon team every year like they have been.
But the Pats have been here before. They aren’t particularly interested in the past. Regardless of someone’s track record, they’re expendable in Bill Belichick’s eyes.
The Patriots decided long ago that they needed the best at one position, and one position only. You can probably guess the one I’m talking about, right?
Once it became apparent, somewhere around 2003 – with the team in its second Super Bowl in three years – that Tom Brady was destined to be one of the best quarterbacks in the game, he solidified his place as the only player in Belichick’s tenure to have actual job security. There are 53 players on the active roster during every game, and 52 of them are playing for their jobs at all times.
It’s just the way they do it. Did they show loyalty to Lawyer Milloy before the 2003 season? No, they cut him and he signed within the division. Keep in mind this is the same Lawyer Milloy that was hugging Belichick and his family after the Patriots beat the Rams in the Super Bowl in 2002. Nineteen months later, without any significant injury, he was out on the straight.
Ask Richard Seymour about security. After playing on all three championship teams, as well as the undefeated 2007 team and after making five consecutive Pro Bowls from 2002-06 and three first-team All-Pros while being considered the model end in a 3-4 defense, Seymour was shipped off to Oakland, the purgatory of the NFL, in 2009.
How about Randy Moss, the receiver who set the NFL touchdown mark in the 2007 season, and led the NFL in total touchdowns for a receiver during his three-year stint in New England? When he went crying for a long-term contract to the media, the Patriots traded him midway through the season.
Basically, the Pats said to those guys, “Thanks for being a part of something special. We couldn’t have done it without you. But now we can, so it’s time to go.”
There is nothing in the history of this franchise under Belichick’s guidance that would indicate that Welker is safe from a similar fate. Plus, he has some real negatives going for him.
First of all, he’s made these contract negotiations public, which is sort of like being in the Secret Service and tweeting where the president is at all times. Let’s just say it’s frowned upon.
Next, he’s 31 years old, which is young in normal professions, but isn’t quite the same in the NFL. Many career has ended well before 31 years old, and for a guy who relies on his quickness as much as anybody in the league, age and natural body deterioration has to be taken into account. Is it a problem right now? No, but if the Patriots pony up too many years in a deal, it could be a problem by the end of it, and the Pats are nothing if not risk-averse. They have no interest in overpaying or eating money if they aren’t going to get the production.
Welker has also already had one significant injury, when he tore his ACL and MCL in January, 2010. He came back in an amazingly short period of time and he’s been basically just as good as ever since then. But it still happened, and that knee is more vulnerable now than it was in 2007 or 2008. Again, it’s a risk-reward situation. The Patriots aren’t going to enjoy if they invest heavy dollars in a player who tears up his knee in year one of the deal.
Then there was 2011, when he decided to not act like a good little solider and he littered his press conference with what he thought were subtle references to Rex Ryan’s foot fetish. Instead, they were clear as day, and Belichick benched him for the first series of the game. The Pats went on to lose that game, and you’re crazy if you think that put legitimate strain on the relationship between Welker and Belichick. If you thought negotiating in the public was bad, making foot-fetish jokes at the expense of your opponent’s head coach just prior to an AFC Divisional Round playoff game is even worse.
Finally – and I’m not sure how much stock they put in this, but it’s worth mentioning – there was the drop in the Super Bowl in February. I can’t imagine the team judging a player who has been so consistent on just one play, but there is a huge emphasis on making plays in pressure situations. Watch the NFL Network any time Belichick is “miced up,” and you’ll start to mute the volume because of how many times he yells “situational football.” In the biggest situation of the year, needing basically a first down to win the Super Bowl, Wes Welker was the one guy who came up short.
All of those things - age, injury history, behavioral history and the Super Bowl - are factors when Belichick and his staff sit down and put a number on how much they think Welker is worth. Welker said that the Pats offered him less than the 2-year, $16 million offer they made him last year. If that’s true – and we have no reason to believe it’s not true – than the Patriots are clearly very, very lukewarm on the idea of giving Welker more than two years at any sort of significant rate.
He’s not getting Calvin Johnson money. Hell, he’s not even getting Pierre Garcon money. Not with the Patriots.
But, are the Patriots better with Welker on the team? Of course. He did have 112, 111, 123, 86 and 122 receptions the last five seasons. It didn’t happen by accident. It happened because the team recognized how well Welker’s set of skills – catching the ball away from his body, getting upfield quickly, making the first guy miss – fit perfectly into the offensive philosophy they were adopting.
The team wouldn’t have franchised Welker if they didn’t think that he was the best man for their No. 1 slot receiver job. They just don’t want to get carried away by assuming that he’s going to be the best man for that job in 2013, or in 2014.
The Patriots brought in Anthony Gonzalez – an oft-injured, but ideal slot receiver – in the off-season, and they still have Julian Edelman on the roster. They were preparing for a Welker holdout, and by the looks of it, they weren’t planning on budging one bit if it came to that. Instead, Welker signed his tender and took a leap of faith.
After he signed, he tweeted “Hopefully doing the right thing gets the right results.” Eh, maybe he hasn’t been paying attention.
The Patriots don’t care about the right thing. They don’t care about loyalty, and they don’t care about valuing players the same way the rest of the league does. While we all want to be rooting for the same guys year in and year out, and we get attached to the players, the Patriots give out long-term deals very rarely. Vince Wilfork, Logan Mankins and Jerod Mayo should all feel blessed. They each signed deals over the past few years to remain in New England for a while.
They’re the exception. Welker’s situation is much more the norm.
Put it this way: In 2008, Brady tore his ACL in the first game of the season, and the team still won 11 games with Matt Cassell at quarterback.
Like I said before, Brady is everything to this team. He’s the only non-expendable player. So if the Patriots can see their cornerstone go down and still win 11 games, what do you think they think they can do without Welker?
It’s not like they’re going to miss the playoffs if Wes Welker isn’t in the slot. Sorry, it’s the truth. I know it, you know it, and Bill Belichick certainly knows it.
It might seem harsh on the surface that the Patriots don’t value Welker the way that his production dictates he should be valued, but it’s a proven method.
We all know “The Patriot Way” is effective, but sometimes it leaves a trail of blood in its wake. That’s the price of being in the hunt every year.
Get more great sports analysis over at Extra Pine Tar.