I was asked to give my thoughts on the Welker / Amendola deal and I will, but I don't think I can address that one aspect without addressing some larger issues. I've tried to figure out a few times how to organize this, and I fear it will probably just end up being a stream of consciousness core dump. I apologize ahead of time. I'll try to add some white space here and there to make it readable.
We all know, or have heard, many, many times that the largest problems the Patriots had in 2006 was the lack of targets for Brady. I believe that is true. The problem with words like "largest" is that there are other problems as well, but since they aren't the "largest" they are largely ignored. Enter 2007 and Brady has all kinds of shiny toys, some new and some carried over from 2006. Randy Moss, Donte Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney, Wes Welker, Ben Watson, Kyle Brady, and 3rd down back, Kevin Faulk, combined to create an otherworldly offense attack under the power of the one and only Tom Brady. The end of the season revealed one of the dirty little secrets that had been carried over from 2006. The defense was aging, and couldn't get it done in the end. The offense was phenomenal, it couldn't be at fault. Could it?
When you go back and look at that game
as many of us have done, over and over as painful as it may be, you see a few things. Welker was great, but was only really used for about half the game. They simply didn't throw it to him. Moss was largely shut down, but had a few nice catches to put points on the board. Stallworth and Gaffney were basically no shows, as were all of the tight ends, and any running back not named Faulk. The running game was almost non-existent. The offensive line look tired and was over-powered and out finessed all day long. The defense actually improved over where they had been in the regular season game against the Giants. The offense was much, much worse. Our multi-dimensional offense turned into a one trick pony that was quickly tamed and sent out to pasture.
We kept Moss, and let Stallworth go, but it didn't much matter the next year as our fill-in quarterback, Matt Cassel, was seeing his first starts since high school. The only reason the secondary didn't look worse than it did was Rodney Harrison in charge of the back end. The defense that was getting old in 2006, and aging in 2007, had it's last hurrah in 2008. Stars like Bruschi, Vrabel, Harrison, and Seymour wouldn't return in 2009.
Tommy boy came back in 2009 and things picked up more or less where there ended. Despite reassembling the team on the fly, we were able to string enough games together to get to playoffs ... and lose to the Ravens. Of course, the loss of Welker in the Texans game was blamed, and the under-performing defense, but we really had no 3rd or 4th receiver - remember Joey Galloway? Our running game stunk when we needed it. In general, there were too many parts of the offense that could get slowed down and cause it to sputter. The Saints game showed that in living color.
In 2010, we were worried about whether Welker would be back, but our fears were unfounded and we had the dynamic duo of Moss and Welker to again strike fear in the league, right? Um, not so much. Moss ended up with the Vikings and then the Titans. Branch came back, we had the attack of the Munchkins. Welker, Edelman, Branch and Woody created all kinds of havoc in the middle of the field. We had a new dynamic duo of Gronk and Herndo, that while rookies, were showing plenty of promise. Again we went one and done in the playoffs to the stinking Jets this time. The porous defense was blamed for the problem, but the offense was, once again, not enough. A daring defensive game plan shut us down.
In 2011, the defense was starting to gel a bit more, and I figured it would be another year before we could really compete. I was wrong. The tight-ends were better than expected; Welker was solid as a rock; and the defense, while porous, was opportunistic. Once again, with a little luck (especially in the AFC Championship game) we were in the promised land once again. But the was still no joy in Foxboro. The "opportunistic" defense didn't avail themselves of enough opportunities. Branch and Hernandez both dropped catches, but the highlight reel miss was the overthrow that Wes Welker failed to bring in. How would that affect his contract negotiations?
What wasn't discussed was the lack of contributions by Gronk who failed to bring in a pass that became a pick. He was hobbled, sure, but we still had to have him on the field because we really had no other good red zone target. He wasn't a guy that could beat a defense anymore, and it showed. If you could limit Welker, and the Pats tried to get around that with routes like the one he missed the pass on, the rest of the offense was not enough to win. Welker could be limited. Teams have shown us the recipe time and time again. It's only Welker's effort level that makes it so hard to do consistently.
The Patriots failed to come to an agreement with Welker the following year and applied the franchise tag. Some people blamed the drop, but I think it was something else entirely. I don't know if you realize it, but Bill Belichick is a pretty smart guy, at least when it comes to football. He game plans for every team he plays. It must have occurred to him at some point of time to look at his own offense as a defensive coordinator would. The Patriots had exactly two guys who could get open quickly: Gronk and Welker. If a defense can bring the right kind of pressure up the middle, and the Giants and a few other teams can, then Gronk and Welker are the only real options. Gronk was hobbled, and Welker can be limited - at most you'll bleed yards. I think the Patriots were trying to change the offense last year and make it more multi-dimensional. One of the ways of doing that was do go away from the million-catch man. The best laid plans of mice and men....
Welker was the franchise player, and he missed some preseason time due to a death in the family. Edelman looked pretty good as a slot option, so why not use more Edelman? That all makes some sense, and that may be a a part of it, but I think the long term plan with Welker was really just one aspect of the bigger picture. With Lloyd brought in, Welker as often on the outside as not, and Edelman in the slot, I think they were trying to give Tom more viable targets who could get open and help them mitigate the depth issue that really had plagued them since 2009. We brought in roughly 3500 tight ends to try to find a suitable backup for the Gronkinator, and as we saw at the end of the season, there wasn't one (although I'm hopeful of Ballard). Whatever the plans, they all came to a screeching halt when Hernandez, then Edelman, then Gronkowski, then Edelman again got injured. Once again, the Brady-Welker connection was pretty much all that ensured we had a passing game.
Oh, but we ALSO had a running game (that feels so good to type), which I feel was part of the plan to diversify the offense. In previous years, we'd run the ball, because, well, you HAVE to. Right? If the run game wasn't going so good, or even if it was, we would just quit running the ball whenever we felt like it. Well last year they ran the ball, and ran it again, and when it didn't go as well, they ran it some more.
One of the little problems, though, is we still lacked receiving depth. Oh, Lloyd can catch a TD pass, and so can Welker (especially if he can get a run at it), but without Gronk we don't have that tall jump ball guy. Hernandez can do it a little, but he's not overly tall, and when he was hobbled, he couldn't jump. Despite the desire to spread the ball around, Welker still got 118 catches even with limited snaps.
Fast forward to this year. We have the Patriots offering Wes a deal. Whether he was the first choice or not, is irrelevant. He had an offer before free agency started. My belief is it was based on a limited role; probably about 25-50% less snaps. Those contract incentives probably would have been hard to reach unless everyone was injured like last year. Whether the Pats wanted Welker OR Amendola or Welker AND Amendola is a matter of speculation. I think the Patriots and BB are looking to diversify the type and number of targets Brady has. No more attack of the Munchins, where flooding the middle of the field can stop the attack. I think we are looking to widen and lengthen the offensive attack. Wes, in some ways, might have held Brady back. He was too much of a sure thing. Tom is now going to have to look for the open man.
Some people use the term "deep threat" around here to mean "Randy Moss", a tall, speedy freak of nature that runs deep and hangs out on the edges of the field. Good luck finding that. I think, though we are going to see some changes, and I'll highlight what I think they'll be.
We need a tall receiver (taller than the DB covering him) who can cover the sidelines and help in the endzone. Gronk can't do it all, and if the unfortunate injuries keep up, Gronk might not do it at all. Herndo and Jones at 6'0" are a little undersized for this. Ballard and Gronk, releasing from the TE spot are great in the endzone, but can't really help on the edges. We'll probably draft for this. Notice I didn't say the guy had to be speedy, because he doesn't need to be to do this job well.
We need a slot receiver that can get open quickly. We have three slot guys in Jones (he has spent quite a bit of time there), Amendola, and Hernandez. We can pick or chose as the defense dictates, because these same guys can play outside as well. This position is filled.
We need a speedy receiver that can, but doesn't have to, run the go route. We won't be sending someone down field for 50 yards every pass. It's not happening. We do need someone that can get behind the corner, and pull the safety. It will help the run, it will help the short game, and it can make the offense quicker scoring if we need a TD in 30 seconds. Ideally, the guy runs other routes, and based off of coverage can go deep. There's a possibility that Amendola or Jones might be able to do this on occasion, but they are not THE GUY. Again, look to the draft.
In the end, the offense needs multiple dimensions, and throwing to Welker all of the time isn't the answer. Yes, the defense has to get better, and I think that will happen, but the offense has to stay consistent all year long. The offense has to have enough depth so that the loss of a star or two doesn't shut it down completely. We may never be on the right side of the injury bug, and we have to be able to deal with losses. I think you'll see a more concerted effort to spread the ball around more than in years past. This Welker thing may come back to bite us, and I'm not 100% sure it was a good thing, but we won't be hoisting a Lombardi again until Brady's favorite receiver is once again the open one. Let's hope they took a step in the right direction.