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On football

Fateful pass not one Wes Welker was accustomed to

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The one that got away: A fourth-quarter pass from Tom Brady - and a great chance for the Patriots to seal a Super Bowl victory - slips through the hands of a tumbling Wes Welker. But it was not the kind of pass the receiver is accustomed to seeing.

It will be replayed and argued over in New England for the next 50 years and perhaps beyond.

With the Patriots leading the Giants, 17-15, and four minutes to play in Super Bowl XLVI, Tom Brady threw a back-shoulder pass to Wes Welker on second and 11 that, if completed, likely would have sent New England to its fourth title.

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Instead, the ball glanced off the hands of a twisting Welker. After another incompletion, the Patriots punted, and the Giants drove for a game-winning score and a 21-17 victory.

After the game, a crestfallen Welker took the blame for not catching what would have been a 22-yard gain to the 20-yard line.

“The ball is right there,’’ Welker said. “I’ve just got to make the play. It’s a play I’ve made a thousand times in practice and everything else. It comes to the biggest moment of my life and I don’t come up with it.

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“It’s one I’ll have to live with.’’

Brady didn’t take any blame after the game. He simply said he’d throw it again to Welker in that spot.

With that, Welker was fitted for goat horns in some circles.

Should he be?

Of course not. In a 60-minute football game with 46 active players on each side and 133 plays, anyone else could have made one more play to put the Patriots over the top.

It didn’t happen, so the biggest missed opportunity will be chewed over for a long time.

Two veteran NFL assistant coaches - a quarterbacks coach and a receivers coach - were asked about the play. They don’t know the exact play-call and how the Patriots teach the play, but they agreed that the back-shoulder throw was not the type of pass Welker expected.

“You don’t have to throw a back-shoulder on that because you’re in the seam, and if you’ve thrown it properly, you beat the safety by taking some air out of the throw,’’ the quarterbacks coach said. “I think that was an inaccurate ball. Anytime you get an inaccurate ball, that’s a tough catch when you’re running vertically toward the goal line like Welker was.

“I wouldn’t count that as a drop if I were charting my football team.’’

The receivers coach agreed, to a point.

“You expect that ball to be in front,’’ he said. “But in the end, it was a catchable ball. Was it where it should have been? No, it’s not where you normally expect it. You’d like it out in front and just run into it.

“It was behind him and it would have been, not a great catch, but a good catch. And he just missed the ball.’’

In defense of Welker, and his statement that he’s made that catch a thousand times, that was simply not true this season.

An examination of the 195 passes thrown to Welker shows that not once did Brady throw back-shoulder and high before that fateful play.

It was a version of the fade or go route. Welker lined up in the left slot, which is his usual position. Deion Branch was to his left in the “X’’ position. The Patriots sometimes run this play with Branch crossing Welker to set a pick. This time, Branch just cleared out cornerback Corey Webster by running a comeback to the sideline.

With safety/cornerback Antrel Rolle playing inside Welker, he stemmed the route a little wide to gain separation from the safety, Kenny Phillips, who is lurking over the top.

The Giants appear to be in Cover 3 with Webster, Phillips, and the other cornerback, Prince Amukamara, dividing the deep part of the field in thirds. Either Webster or Rolle got the call wrong - it looked to be Rolle, from Phillips’s reaction - because Webster stopped over the top of Branch instead of continuing up the field. Rolle likely should have carried Welker tighter up the field but didn’t, which left Welker wide open.

Brady thought Phillips was enough of a threat to lead Welker away from him. Hence, the throw over Welker’s back shoulder. Actually, Phillips wasn’t closing on Welker, he was trying to get an angle to stop a big play because he took a poor one to start.

Brady put a lot of air under the ball to give Welker a chance to adjust. But it’s tough to go from a full sprint to turning around the other way while trying to make a catch.

Of the 195 passes from Brady to Welker (141 receptions), Welker was targeted on only 28 (14.3 percent) of the vertical variety (fade, post, corner, and a slant-and-go). Only 17 were a version of that fade route (8.7 percent).

Vertical routes are not Welker’s game, which is why the Patriots seldom throw those to him. Welker’s bread-and-butter (85.7 percent worth) is on the lower end: the flat, slant, comeback, curl, out, dig, and various quick passes. He either runs away from man coverage or sits in the zone and takes the hit. And he does it better than anyone.

Vertical receivers have long arms and big hands. Welker has neither.

On vertical routes, Brady connected with Welker on 15 passes for 508 yards and two touchdowns (there was one penalty). Three of Welker’s biggest plays - the 99-yard touchdown in Week 1, the 73-yarder against the Jets in Week 5, and the 41-yard touchdown against the Eagles - came on vertical routes. But all three were busted coverages with no safety over the top. Welker never had to break stride.

Brady threw only four back-shoulder passes downfield to Welker all season. Not one was thrown high. They all hit Welker in the stomach or high in the chest.

There were six plays similar to the one in the Super Bowl during the season: Week 1 at Miami, Week 4 at Oakland, Week 6 against Dallas, Week 9 against the Giants, Week 15 against the Dolphins, and in the AFC Championship game against the Ravens.

On the four occasions when Welker was in space, the ball was thrown over the inside shoulder even with a safety nearby. In Week 9, against the Giants, Welker had to go low and take a hit from Phillips on the same route.

Twice there was tight man coverage, against the Raiders and Cowboys, and Brady threw back-shoulder with the Oakland reception a spectacular hookup at the 1-yard line.

“Back-shoulder throws are in tight coverage, either a trail technique or a real aggressive man-to-man technique,’’ the quarterbacks coach said.

“When you’re in space like that, you expect to catch the ball over your inside shoulder going toward the goal line. You hope the quarterback keeps you isolated away from the safety by moving him with his eyes, but you don’t back-shoulder that throw.’’

The other issue is Welker catching high passes in general. He didn’t have to do it very much, and he doesn’t make the acrobatic catches he used to.

Before the Super Bowl, Welker was thrown 10 passes on which he had to leave his feet to make the catch and he caught eight of them.

On seven of the passes (six receptions), Welker jumped straight up from a standstill.

The other three were much more difficult.

Welker had one against the Eagles when he had to extend, and it could have been considered a drop (he would have landed on his feet if he did catch it).

Against the Steelers, Welker made a tough leaping catch toward the sideline for an important 2-yard gain to pick up a first down.

Against the Raiders, he made perhaps his best catch of the season - the one that probably makes him believe he should have caught the ball in the Super Bowl.

On third and 6 late in the third quarter, Welker ran a corner route toward the sideline from the right slot. Brady threw a beautiful pass over the trailing cornerback and Welker’s inside shoulder. Welker had to leave his feet and take a brutal shot to the back from the safety. But he held on.

That was a sensational catch.

But it didn’t have to be made running full speed and twisting back over the other shoulder, as Welker was asked to do in the Super Bowl.

But in the end, Welker likely should have made the catch.

“The thesis statement is, was that a catchable ball? The answer to that is yes,’’ the receivers coach said. “I don’t care how you cut it.

“Was it a difficult catch? Yes. Was it something that he sees often? No. But in the end, the subtitles don’t mean anything. Did he catch it or didn’t he?

“My heart goes out to him because nobody represents the NFL in a more respectful and beautiful way than that kid does. And that’s the tough part.’’

For Brady and Welker, it will be a long offseason filled with second-guessing, but neither should take heat for the loss. One play does not make or break a Super Bowl champion, especially one that could have been executed better by both players.

Greg A. Bedard’s comprehensive review of Super Bowl XLVI will appear in tomorrow’s Globe. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.
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