Is the Wes Welker "Experiment" Finally Over?

Evan Habeeb-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

In lieu of tricking, the Patriots' front office should focus its efforts on treating wide receiver Wes Welker as he proves once again why he's one of the most reliable receivers in the league.

I'm as much of a Belichickian devotee as anybody who follows this team. A bigger one, probably. Just short of placing a painted portrait of "The Hoodie" above my fireplace, I find myself curiously adopting his mannerisms. I divulge seemingly vague details and intentionally shortened answers at job interviews. When my girlfriend politely asks me to explain a football play, I go on describing it in detail for an hour with an accompanying anecdote for each instance it had ever occurred in the NFL's history. And who coached it. And why. And how. She's usually asleep by this point. Even the cat bears the burden of my inner Belichick. "Just because you hadn't scratched the couch all last week, doesn't change the fact that you scratched it today," I tell him. Past performance doesn't guarantee future results. He looks up at me from his food dish with quizzical eyes after he discovers his portions have been slimmed. "It is what it is," I reply.

Maybe that's why I found myself at a loss and in the midst of an epic inner struggle as the regular season unfolded. I was certainly expecting a few shakeups in the offensive gameplans with the return of Josh McDaniels, but I assumed Wes Welker would still be a foundation in each one, even after a little contractual drama permeated an otherwise successful offseason for the front office. Worse comes to worst, I thought, they might try to shop Welker to a receiver-needy team to see if they could receive something of value before Welker becomes a free agent this offseason. I deemed it highly unlikely when considering his $9.5 million franchise tag and no feasibile way for a team to extend it beyond just the one year. With the ineptitude of both sides failing to come to terms on a new deal, I felt Welker was still far too important to this team--and that the team was too important to Welker--for it to effect anything long-term beyond the financial.

The season began, and our wily stalwart of the slot was nowhere to be seen. We chocked it up to possible injury, defensive gameplanning, or an entirely new look for the McDaniels offense. A closer look at the depth chart revealed that Welker had indeed fallen behind quarterback-turned-Welker-clone Julian Edelman. After Edelman's contributions during the 2009 season following Welker's ACL tear (10 catches for 103 yards against the Houston Texans, 6 catches for 44 yards and two TDs against the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs), it was always surmised that Edelman had a nearly identical skillset as Welker and could make a suitable replacement in the event of injury or future free agency. I don't think anyone realistically believed that Edelman could fully replace an absent Welker, and certainly wouldn't be able to unseat #83 on the depth chart while he is still healthy and still catching passes for the New England Patriots.

But it happened. The little information we were given was classic Belichickian; that a separate game plan exists complete with a separate package of personnel for each game, and that Wes Welker was indeed still a large part of the offense. Fair enough. Then Julian Edelman went down with a hand injury, Aaron Hernandez went down with an ankle injury and it was all eyes on Wes. Predictable to an almost comical extent, Welker went off, catching 8 passes for 142 yards against the Baltimore Ravens, 9 passes for 129 yards against the Buffalo Bills and 13 passes for 104 yards and a score against the Denver Broncos, a pace so rapid it (once again) puts him on pace to eclipse 100 receptions for the year. He is tied for the NFL lead in total receptions with 39, a remarkable feat considering his nearly silent production in the early part of the season.

What the previous three games have proven (and what we knew all along) is that Welker is not a gameplan-dependent player. The Detroit Lions certainly don't sit Calvin Johnson when they face an elite cornerback, and the Houston Texans don't sit Arian Foster when they're pitted against a stout run defense. While still somehow finding a way to avoid being a household name like the two listed above, Welker is certainly New England's superstar not named Tom Brady. The model of consistency, watching Welker catch difficult pass after difficult pass to extend crucial drives on Sunday night against the Denver Broncos was an all too familiar thing of beauty, and an element that the now record-shattering offense seemed to miss in the early goings.

It's hard to say why Wes Welker lost any snaps at all to the oft-injured and (still) unproven Julian Edelman. Whether it was some sort of punishment for contractual disputes, a type of experimentation until the new offense "found its own" or whether the coaching staff truly believed Edelman was a better option at this point, we will most likely never find out. It's hard to imagine even a tongue-in-cheek comment hurting Welker's case for a new contract any, as he may have just proven how indispensable he really is. Even an offense that has recently begun to pride itself on run-heavy, clock-killing drives has plenty of room for the his seemingly automatic production.

For an organization that has built a reputation each year for hitting far more than it misses, the handling of the Wes Welker situation has completely missed the target. And in the case of Julian Edelman, if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck then it probably is. It's just unfortunate for him that one duck happens to swim faster in the water and catches every bullet you fire at it.

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