DENVER — One day when Mike Shanahan had a large, ornate coaches’ office at Dove Valley, he ran the coaches’ film of back-to-back cheap shots that first Rodney Harrison then Vince Wilfork delivered on Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler in a 2008 Monday night game at New England.
Cutler was trying to chase down a Patriot return of a fumble recovery and was well away from the play when first Harrison went out of his way to blast the quarterback. As Cutler woozily started to get up, Wilfork took off on a 90-degree angle from the path of the ball, raised his right forearm, and blasted the quarterback across the helmet.
ESPN whiffed on the play, which is lucky for the Patriots because media outlets would still be talking about the egregious nature of those shots. Wilfork was fined $35,000, with the NFL stating it couldn’t further punish him because the coaches’ film Shanahan sent in was its only shot of the play.
So when Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Monday that the second-quarter, midfield collision between Broncos receiver Wes Welker and New England cornerback Aqib Talib in the AFC Championship game Sunday was “a deliberate play by the receiver to take out Talib . . . one of the worst plays I’ve seen,” some examination is needed.
Was Belichick lying, exaggerating, or does he have a poor memory from the Harrison-Wilfork blasts on Cutler five years earlier? Or perhaps Belichick assumed Welker’s tactic was intentional based on how the receiver was coached in six previous years with New England?
The most common reaction to Belichick’s cry of foul is he is a serial sore loser. When the Patriots were 18-0 entering Super Bowl XLII, only to lose in the Big Game to the New York Giants, Belichick headed to the locker room with seconds to go, blowing off the postgame handshake with opposing coach Tom Coughlin.
After losing to Baltimore in the AFC Championship game last year, Belichick ignored CBS sideline reporter Steve Tasker, prompting studio analyst Shannon Sharpe to sound off.
“Bill Belichick makes it very easy for you to root against the Patriots,” Sharpe said. “You can’t be a poor sport all the time. You’re not going to win every time. And he does this every time he loses.”
He’s still doing it. Without prompting, Belichick told New England reporters Monday morning, “It is a deliberate play by the receiver to take out Aqib. No attempt to get open. And I’ll let the league handle the discipline on that play. It’s not for me to decide, but it’s one of the worst plays I’ve seen.”
Granted, no team loves the pick play like this season’s Broncos. And there have been other midfield collisions or near misses this season.
“The umpire is in that area — it’s a pretty crowded area — so I think offenses have tried to exploit that,” said Broncos coach John Fox. “We’re not the only team by any stretch. In fact, our opponent Sunday did the same thing.”
Broncos offensive coordinator Adam Gase learned the intricacies of the pick play while he was the team’s wide receivers coach serving head coach Josh McDaniels in 2009-10. McDaniels arrived in Denver from New England, and he’s now back with the Patriots. Bill Walsh’s great San Francisco teams of the 1980s are largely credited with introducing the pick play to NFL passing schemes.
To be fair to Belichick, there is a video shot of the collision that could incriminate Welker. But then Welker’s explanation also jibes with the video.
“It was one of those plays where it’s kind of a rough play and I was trying to get him to go over the top, and I think he was thinking the same thing and wanted to come underneath and we just kind of collided,” Welker said after the game in front of his locker. “It wasn’t a deal where I was trying to hit him or anything like that. I hope he’s OK, he’s a great player and a big part of their defense.”
It would seem unlikely that a 185-pound guy who recently suffered two concussions would seek out a collision. The magnifying glass the NFL now has on brain injuries may well have placed Welker’s career in jeopardy had he suffered a third concussion in a two-month period.
And it was Welker who got knocked back first. He seemed to brace — not deliver — a blow with his shoulder before contact.
“I know that Wes Welker is a great player, high integrity,” Fox said. “We were not doing anything with intent.”