I don't consider myself a confrontational guy. Delusional? Yes. Paranoid? Sure. A little thick around the middle? Absolutely. But I've never really been one for conflict or controversy. The way I see it, we'll all be dead in 100 years anyway (some of us much sooner than that), so there's really no point in causing unnecessary drama.
And "no unnecessary drama" has been the running theme for the New England Patriots ever since Bill Belichick took over as coach. While other teams are constantly in the spotlight and under the scrutiny of cameras everywhere, the Patriots carry on as usual and let their record speak for itself. The media is seen as more of a nuisance than anything else, and if it were up to Belichick there would be little to no team coverage at all. Once in a while, though, in spite of everyone's best efforts, a series of events happens that gets everyone all worked up and puts the entire league on Red Alert.
Up until now, I've tried very hard to stay out of the Wes Welker conversation, as I think it's about as big a non-issue as it gets. However, that seems to be all I'm reading as of late, and almost every other text message I get asks me what the deal is with Tommy B's favorite target. And so, it would appear that I don't have much choice than to share my thoughts on the matter.
In order to really get into this, I'm going to have to pretend that "not starting" is actually a big deal in a football game, even though it means little more than that a player isn't on the field for the first snap of the game. I'm also going to pretend that Welker's 95 yards on 11 targets last week isn't a pretty damn good day for a receiver. I'll even go so far as to pretend I didn't hear all the coaches praising him and assuring everyone that Welker is still as much a part of this offense as he has always been, and that Welker himself is on record saying that he'll do whatever he needs to do to help his team win. I'm going to ignore all of that, as well as New England's decade-long track record of zigging while the rest of the NFL zags, and buy into the hullabaloo.
Follow the jump for some of my favorite Wes Welker conspiracy theories, and what my thoughts are on each.
Bill Belichick is proving a point. "Hold out on me, will ya? Creating some controversy, are ya? Well see how you like sitting on the bench! I don't even care if we lose this game, just as long as you and everybody else around here knows that nobody tries to get the upper hand on The Hooded One - NOBODY!" The fact that there are legitimate members of the sports media even thinking about entertaining this notion is beyond laughable. Belichick doesn't care about politics. He doesn't care about how he is perceived by anyone outside of the Patriots organization. He doesn't care about being right, wrong, or anything in between. He cares about winning football games. And if Wes Welker will help the Patriots win, then he'll be in there. Belichick has always done what he thought was best for the team, regardless of how controversial it is; I have a feeling that Welker isn't turning into a locker room cancer and that he still has tremendous value to this offense. And anyone who thinks that Belichick is trying to prove some kind of point or deliver some kind of message at the potential detriment of the rest of the Patriots simply hasn't been following this team for the past 12 years.
The Patriots are getting ready to trade Welker. Let's just say that this is true and they would like to trade him. What team is going to trade for him? Unless I'm mistaken, Welker's franchise tag doesn't allow him to sign any kind of contract extension this year, with the Patriots or otherwise. That means that teams will be giving up what is likely a fairly high round draft pick(s) and picking up a $9 million contract for a player who will be a free agent at the end of the season and may not even re-sign with the team that traded for him. That seems like a huge risk with very limited upside. Plus, if the Pats were looking to trade him, wouldn't they want to showcase his abilities to the rest of the league by utilizing him in every way that they can? How does limiting his role on the team and finding success without him up his trade value in any way?
The offense is preparing to move on without Welker. At least this theory has some legitimacy, as 2012 may very well be Welker's last year in a Patriots uniform. But even if that was the case, then they would be preparing to move on without him in a manner than still allows them to be successful. I'd be very curious to hear what people would be saying this week if Stephen Gostkowski had made that 42 yard field goal; after all, Welker had a very strong second half along with a key catch that moved the team even closer to the goalposts on that final drive. If New England is preparing for life after Welker, they won't begin those preparations by completely phasing him out of the offense before September is even over. You don't quit smoking cold turkey, and you don't just up and stop using one of your best players because there's a chance that he might not be with the team 9 months from now. That's the equivalent of not having that fourth Big Mac because there's a chance it might possibly give me a heart attack at age 40.
OK, that was an awful example. Eating four Big Macs will definitely give me a heart attack at age 40. But you know what I'm trying to say.
I don't think any of those theories, depsite their shocking prominence in the media, hold any water whatsoever. Here's what I think is actually going on:
Welker isn't quite in shape yet. This isn't so much my theory as it is what Welker himself said. He missed some time in the offseason, which is doubly detrimental now that teams have so little time to get themselves ready. He had a big drop on what would have been a third down conversion on Sunday, and had a ball bounce off his facemask in Week 1. To paraphrase Welker himself, missing one week under the new CBA is the equivalent of missing two or three weeks a few years back, and when there is a player in Julian Edeleman who has been working himself to the bone all offseason trying to get better and seems well-prepared to try and fill in until Welker gets himself back up to speed. I think he's 90% there at this point, but I have noticed that he's a little slow coming out of his breaks and he's still dropping too many passes. And while Welker has always had something of an issue with drops, I think he'll get himself ready to go very soon now.
New England's offense is expanding. And this is a very, very good thing. Remember the scene in "Bill Belichick: A Football Life" when he is sitting at the coaches' table and he says to his staff that if a defense brackets Moss and takes the underneath route away from Welker, then the Patriots won't be able to get anything going? Well that type of offense isn't a recipe for success. Not relying on Welker to move the chains is a nice luxury, and one that defenses still aren't entirely used to. If the running game keeps working (which I think it will) and Brandon Lloyd and Tom Brady find their rhythm on the deep ball (which I know they will), defenses will stop using last year's game tape to focus as heavily on Welker and will start worrying about New England's other weapons. And once defensive focus is elsewhere, Welker is going to have a field day. Or several. It's also important to remember that, for most of his time in New England, Welker has been the team's running game, earning his living on the short under routes or taking a quick screen 5 yards for the first down. With Stevan Ridley earning positive yardage, some of those quick throws to Welker become more luxury than necessity, which will allow him to expand his role a bit as well.
The Patriots are, and have always been, game-plan specific. Sometimes Welker is a big part of the gameplan, and sometimes he isn't. These past two weeks, he hasn't really been the focus of the offense, and if I had to guess, I'd say that last Sunday's gameplan featured a heavy dose of Harnandez (oops). In a few weeks, when Welker rattles off back-to-back 15 catch, 130 yard games, maybe everyone will relax a little. But until then, just remember that the coaching staff will put whoever they think gives the team the best chance of winning into the game at whatever position is necessary; if Belichick thinks it's a good strategy to let Vince Wilfork return punts, then Wilfork will be back there returning punts. Like I said above, an expanding offense means that there are simply more options for success than throwing a bunch of quick outs to Welker, and as a result we may have to deal with a few games where Welker settles more deeply into a new role.
So let's all relax here, alright? Whatever happens happens. And maybe we should let a few more weeks go by before we start freaking out over Welker.