Wes Welker strategy is unfathomable
The laws of logic, nature, and physics don’t always apply to Bill Belichick’s Patriots. They’ll try to convince you that two plus two equals five. That the cloudless blue sky you’re looking at is actually a purple haze. That what goes up stays aloft in perpetuity. That Julian Edelman is as good a wide receiver as Wes Welker.
You’re expected to just nod in the affirmative, utter “In Belichick We Trust,” and walk in lockstep off a cognitive cliff. Understandable. The guy is unquestionably the greatest football coach of his generation, probably of any generation. He always has his reasons, even if he rarely presents them for public consumption.
But the curious case of Welker is one in which Belichick’s brevity and secrecy are doing him a disservice. The approach is not preventing a distraction. It’s creating one, heading into a very important football game Sunday night against the Baltimore Ravens.
The Welker Watch rolls on. Everybody has a theory on why Welker is being used in moderation this year: contract issues, the Super Bowl drop, a repositioning of the offense, a decline in play that is the scouting equivalent of a dog whistle (only the Patriots can see it).
Belichick has the answer. He’s not sharing.
The one thing you can’t say is that Welker’s usage in the first two games is not a story. It is. Whenever there is an area of the Patriots operation that comes into question, we’re often reminded that we need to judge it against the context of the rest of the NFL; fair enough.
If in Indianapolis an ostensibly healthy Reggie Wayne were losing playing time to a guy with one touchdown reception in four seasons, it would be a story. If Steve Smith in Carolina were sitting in two-wide receiver sets in favor of converted college quarterback Armanti Edwards, it would be a story. Treating Welker as the No. 3 wideout behind Edelman is news.
That’s especially the case when the underlying premise is that what is best for the team is taking playing time away from a player who could get open in a phone booth, is the team’s all-time leading receiver, has caught more passes since 2007 than any other player in the league (562, 75 more than Wayne), and set a franchise record for receiving yards last season (1,569).
Even if Welker, at 31, has begun to decline, saying that Edelman (who has made an admirable transition from college QB to NFL wide receiver) is on the same level as Welker is like saying a go-kart and a Formula One car handle the same.
Belichick was asked about Welker again Wednesday. It read like Abbott and Costello.
Q: Can you provide any more explanation about the drop in Wes Welker’s usage?
BB: I think if you look at his production through the time he has been here, it’s been pretty consistent.
Q: I’m talking more about his usage than his production.
BB: That’s what I’m talking about.
Q: In terms of snaps?
The lowest percentage of snaps Welker took in a game all last season, according to ProFootballFocus.com, was 76 percent. That took place in Week 10 against the Jets. He played 63 percent of the snaps in this year’s season opener against Tennessee Sept. 9.
That number got bumped up to 77 percent last Sunday (63 of 82), after Aaron Hernandez was hobbled with a right ankle injury just three offensive plays into a 20-18 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. We’ll never know how big a part of the game plan Welker would have been if Hernandez hadn’t gotten hurt. Edelman played 91 percent of the snaps last Sunday, but only 34 percent in the season opener.
There have been a number of theories on why Welker has gone from focal point of the passing game to featured player in a football mystery.
One thought is that Edelman is a better option in two-wide receiver sets — he was on the field for 13 of the 15 the Patriots used Sunday — because he’s a better run-blocker than Welker. If that were the basis for playing time, Matthew Slater would play over both Edelman and Welker.
Another theory is that the offense has evolved into a tight end-centric system and Welker’s presence takes away from that. The first part of this makes sense. Follow the money. The Patriots couldn’t come to a long-term deal with Welker, but invested what could be north of $95 million in Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski.
The problem is, the second part is false. While Welker caught 122 balls last year, Gronkowski set NFL records for touchdown receptions and receiving yards by a tight end. Hernandez had 79 receptions for 910 yards and seven touchdowns, despite missing two games.
If the Patriots want to move away from Welker, that’s fine, but other teams don’t have to know that. Even as a decoy, Welker is valuable. The Jets have been known to devote the best cornerback in the game, Darrelle Revis, to covering Welker. Teams don’t game-plan to stop Edelman. Welker is a different story.
Maybe Belichick didn’t want to tip his hand in the first two weeks for the Ravens. That explanation would fly in the face of the Patriots’ “one game at a time” mantra, but it could be in the best interests of the team to engage in subterfuge and save part of the playbook for a team vying with the Patriots for AFC supremacy.
Belichick has his reasons, Machiavellian or not, and more often than not he’s right (Brady over Bledsoe, releasing Lawyer Milloy, trading Randy Moss, etc.). We await the education from the coach.
In the meantime, excuse me while I slip on my sunglasses. The purple sky is hurting my eyes.