Danny Amendola’s first season as a Patriot has been as nondescript as a cinder-block wall. He has blended into the banal, cliché-filled background in Foxborough, another silent cog in Bill Belichick’s estimable football machine.
The team’s second-leading receiver hasn’t made much noise on or off the field. But Amendola, who was signed to a five-year, $31 million contract to replace Wes Welker in the offseason, was supposed to be a standout, not blend in. He was Welker 2.0, a younger, faster, bigger, better version of New England’s former slot receiver nonpareil.
While Welker and the Patriots had a messy divorce, Amendola and the Patriots were billed as a perfect marriage of system and skill set. Who cared if Amendola had never had 700 yards receiving in a season, had played just 16 games once, or entered this season with seven career touchdown receptions in four seasons? The players don’t make the Patriots. The Patriots make the players.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way, which is why Amendola is one of the Patriots players most on the spot Saturday, when the Patriots host the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC playoffs. His pedestrian Patriot debut season will become a footnote if he shines on a stage he has never taken.
Amendola is one of 21 Patriots who have never played in a playoff game. With Rob Gronkowski out for the season with a torn ACL and wide receiver Aaron Dobson looking doubtful with a foot injury, Amendola’s importance, and the stakes, have been raised.
“Yeah, it’s my first playoff game,” Amendola said. “I understand the magnitude of the game, and I’m excited for it.”
Whatever you do, Danny, don’t drop a pass in a loss, unless you want a public flogging.
Welker caught more passes than any other receiver in the NFL during his six seasons with the Patriots. Yet all he catches is grief for two balls he didn’t catch in the playoffs that rankle and resonate with a segment of the Foxborough Faithful.
The playoffs are going to continue the ceaseless receiver referendum between Amendola and Welker.
Amendola had moments this season when he performed like a No. 1 receiver.
He was outstanding in the season-opening win against Buffalo, catching 10 passes for 104 yards and nine first downs. He had four catches for 122 yards, including a career-long 57-yarder, and a touchdown against Pittsburgh. He made the game-winning 1-yard TD grab in the miraculous comeback against Cleveland.
But he never really gained entrance into Tom Brady’s Circle of Trust, a place where Welker was a VIP.
Amendola acknowledged that his chemistry with Brady is still in the research-and-development phase.
“It’s ongoing,” he said. “You know, that’s why we practice every day. It will get better with time and with experience together. So, we’re working.”
We’ve heard that from imported pass-catchers before, only to see them excommunicated by TB12.
We all know how important the vaunted v-word — value — is to the Patriots.
The Patriots paid Amendola, who had 54 receptions for 633 yards and two touchdowns in 12 games, $8.38 million this season. He got a $6 million signing bonus, $2 million in base salary, and was paid a bonus of $31,250 for each game he was active, adding up to $375,000. He also got a $5,775 workout bonus.
Welker, who had 73 receptions for 778 yards and 10 touchdowns in 13 games, was paid $6.005 million by the Broncos this season. He got a $4 million signing bonus, $2 million in base salary, and had a $5,600 workout bonus.
Who was a better value?
I keep hoping that Patriots coach Bill Belichick let Welker go to Denver to be some sort of embedded receiver, a plant who will sabotage Peyton Manning and the Broncos when it matters most.
That’s the only way that having Welker on the Broncos, instead of in Foxborough, makes the Patriots better.
Amendola’s allies will point out that he has persevered through a groin injury all year.
But being as brittle as a stick of baseball-card bubblegum is part of his reputation.
His numbers in 2012 with the St. Louis Rams (63 receptions for 666 yards and three touchdowns in 11 games) were similar to those for the Patriots this year.
It has become a convenient narrative around here that Julian Edelman replaced Welker’s production, so the Patriots aren’t any worse off without Brady’s BFF. That’s true to some extent.
It is possible that the Patriots were both right to let go of Welker, who missed the last three games of the season due to a concussion, because his production was replaceable, and erred in signing Amendola.
The jury is out on both decisions, though.
Plus, if the Patriots were so sure Edelman, not Amendola, was Welker’s successor as the team’s No. 1 receiver, then why did they wait until April 10 — the same day they signed Pittsburgh Steelers wide receive Emmanuel Sanders to a restricted free agent offer sheet — to bring back Edelman on an incentive-laden one-year deal?
In sports, like politics, you follow the money. The guy with the bigger numbers in his paycheck is usually the guy the team expects bigger numbers from.
“I learned the first thing when I came to the NFL, you never know how the season is going to go,” Amendola said. “And if you have an idea, it’s probably going to go a different way. So you’ve just got to keep working and keep trying to get better every day, that’s all you can do.”
But the back story of the regular season is irrelevant if Amendola grabs the spotlight in the playoffs.
If he doesn’t, then it will be the Patriots who dropped the ball in the playoffs this time.
Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.