Wes Welker took a leap of faith when he signed his franchise tag tender in May. On Monday, the deadline for franchised players to sign a deal for more than their one-year franchise figure, his leap landed with a splat and without a lucrative long-term contract, his show of good faith in the Patriots going unrewarded.
Welker dropped the ball on these negotiations (insert bon mot about his reception gone awry in Super Bowl XLVI here). He sacrificed his leverage the same way he has so selflessly sacrificed his body over the middle the last five seasons, signing his $9.515 million franchise tender two months ago.
Welker’s pledge to do the right thing was his undoing. His relatively modest contract demands -- he would have done a deal for three years and $22 million, $5 million less than the deal Randy Moss got in 2008 -- weren’t met. The team’s best offer was two years, $16 million.
It was not a coincidence that the three franchised players who won their multi-million dollar staring contests on Deadline Day and got profitable new pacts -- Chicago Bears running back Matt Forte, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and Jacksonville Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee -- all balked at signing their tender. The only recourse a player has is withholding his services or threatening to withhold them.
So, the financially-savvy folks in Foxborough won yet another contract debate, but at what cost? They have sent a powerful message by not rewarding either Welker’s production or his unfailing fealty. Playing nice with the Patriots doesn’t pay off. Playing hardball does.
Buying wholesale into the Patriot Way, catching more passes than any player in the NFL since 2007 (557), rushing back from a career-threatening knee injury in 2010, and setting a franchise-record for receiving yards last season (1,569) is worth nothing more than gratitude and platitudes at the negotiating table.
If you look at the veteran players who have earned long-term contracts from the Patriots through the years, the majority of them took truculent stances, fired warning shots through the media or staged some sort of boycott.
Vince Wilfork didn’t get his five-year, $40-million deal from the Patriots in 2010 until he abstained from voluntary OTAs (organized team activities) before the 2009 season, and then following it called the franchise tag “basically a slap in the face.”
In 2010, a displeased Logan Mankins, deprived of free agency by the machinations of an uncapped year, publicly accused owner Robert Kraft of reneging on a contract pledge and demanded a trade. He then proceeded to engage in a protracted sit-out, missing training camp and the first eight weeks of the season. Mankins got the franchise tag following the season, and then got a six-year, $51-million extension last summer.
Even Tom Brady had to express some displeasure before getting a deal.
It would certainly seem that loyalty and production don’t get the Patriots’ attention like anger and intransigence do.
Now, it’s worth noting that the Patriots have made strides toward changing their business philosophy, recognizing their hard-line stance ended up costing them more money in the end with both Wilfork and Mankins. The team pre-emptively lavished top-of-the-market extensions on both linebacker Jerod Mayo and tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Mayo received a five-year, $48.5 million contract extension last December and Gronkowski got a six-year, $54-million extension tacked on to his rookie deal in June. The Gronkowski deal has some contractual window dressing; the Patriots can opt out of it in 2016 before the salaries spike and $37 million of the pact is due from 2016 to 2019.
Welker, 31, might only make sense to the Patriots as a one-year rental. The team is loading up for another Super Bowl run -- this offseason had a 2007 feel to it -- and the Patriots have to figure out how to retain tight end Aaron Hernandez, whose contract is up after next season.
There is something unseemly about draining a player of all his best years and not properly compensating him for it. But that’s the business Welker is in, the business of sports, where human beings are commodities.
The other message the Patriots delivered by not locking up Welker is they deem him replaceable, maybe not directly as a slot receiver nonpareil, but replaceable. Much like the Patriots offense morphed after the trade of Moss and the loss of the long ball in 2010, the Patriots could adapt and score without Welker.
The additions of Brandon Lloyd and Jabar Gaffney (a Brady favorite who is signed through next season) along with the tandem of Gronk and Hernandez, a hybrid tight end-wide receiver who can do many of the things Welker can, could inspire coach Bill Belichick to believe that Welker is not indispensable.
It would also follow a general philosophy the Patriots have employed during the Brady era of not splurging on the wide receiver position. The Patriots’ offense is about who is throwing the ball and not who is catching it. Moss’s deal remains the most lucrative the Patriots have handed a wideout. It has not hurt them, save for 2006.
Few are protesting on Welker’s behalf. If a player is woefully underperforming relative to his remuneration, like a John Lackey, there is a torrent of commentary about how he is overpaid, among other often harsher invectives.
But when a player like Welker, who long ago outperformed the five-year, $18.1 million contract he signed to join the Patriots in 2007, has sufficiently outpaced his pay stub for years and gets stiff-armed when he tries to collect, there is either apathetic silence or a salute to the franchise for its business acumen.
When the Patriots are involved there is a healthy dose of the latter.
The Patriots have “won,” avoiding paying Welker for past performance, but in the process they might find that they’ve made future negotiations more contentious and costly.