We’re about 24 hours removed from Wes Welker splitting town, and New England is still a very angry place. Angry and confused, really. Like Welker himself after a Bernard Pollard cheap shot to the head. Or Gronk after the first time he heard the words: “I’m sorry, sir. But unless you put some pants on we’re going to have to ask you to leave the bar.”
We’re not only angry that Welker left, but also at why he left, where he went, and how much he went for. We’re angry that Bill Belichick and the Pats let him go, and at the way they let him go, and how he was treated along the way. We’re angry over whom they replaced him with and how much they spent in the process. We’re angry because Tom Brady is angry. Because the face of the franchise took his own leap of faith -- again -- only to see his best friend and favorite target treated with the dignity of a drunken hobo -- again. We’re angry because, as usual, there will be no explanation as to why this happened, at least nothing befitting a player of Welker’s stature. At best, we’re left with only loose speculation and generally uninformed opinions on why one of the most beloved, consistent and hardest working athletes in recent Boston sports history was gifted to a rival for what amounts to the price of Jonathan Kraft’s annual fantasy football dues.
We’re angry because it hurts to lose any player with whom you’ve built a bond as strong as New England has with Welker. After all, six years is a lifetime in professional sports. In the NFL, it’s two lifetimes. And over that stretch, Welker came to embody just about everything fans -- and the media -- want in an athlete. He put team before self, and not only in terms of stats, but also his own well-being, both physically and financially. This was clear during his (at the time) unprecedented comeback from a torn ACL and PCL. It was clear every time he was obliterated over the middle and bounced back up, as everyone at home and in the stands shook their heads disbelief, wondering if No. 83 was even human. It was clear with last year’s leap of faith, the same one that ultimately came back to chomp him in the ass.
It doesn’t hurt that Welker was the same size, if not smaller than most of his fans. That he was “a scrappy, little white guy,” someone New England could relate to. That he embraced the city of Boston as much as we embraced him. That he had the personality and charm -- a real life combo of Tweeder from Varsity Blues and Seinfeld’s “The Wiz” -- strong enough to breakthrough the force field that surrounds that organization. That he was a walking, running and playing cliché, and I mean that in the very best sense of the word.
His connection with Brady was strong from the start, as the two hooked up for a touchdown on the first drive of the first game of Welker’s first season in New England. He’d catch 33 more TDs from Brady over their six seasons together, and another three touchdowns in the playoffs.
He leaves New England as the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions (672), as well as receptions per game (7.2) and yards per game (80.2). He also ranks second all-time in receiving yards (7459), third in all-purpose yards (9070) and eighth in touchdowns (37). For good measure, he’s fourth all-time in punt returns and return yards.
Over his six years with the Pats, Welker was named to five Pro Bowls, four All-Pro teams, led the entire NFL in receptions three times and was twice given the Ed Block Courage Award -- an annual honor bestowed on a player who is voted by his teammates as a role model of inspiration, sportsmanship, and courage.
Today, the undersized kid from Oklahoma -- who wasn’t recruited out of high school, wasn’t drafted out of college and was once released by a Chargers team whose leading receivers were someone named Eric Parker and a 34-year-old Keenan McCardell -- has become a legitimate superstar and a borderline, still-potential Hall of Famer. He’s carved out a permanent niche in the hearts of fans who were lucky enough to watch him and reporters who were lucky enough to cover him. Bottom line: New England loves Wes Welker. New England will always love Wes Welker. As a result, we’ve taken his decision to leave -- or more, just the fact that he left -- as personally as Welker took the Pats' negotiation tactics.
We’re angry. And today, that anger is plastered all over the Internet in the form of columns, blogs, tweets, message board posts and e-mail threads. And in the midst of that anger, I think it’s easy to lose perspective. I think we’ve been a little quick to react. I think it’s at least worth taking a breath and seeing how the rest of this offseason pans out before burning Belichick in effigy, accusing Josh McDaniels of ruining the franchise and speaking about the Pats in the same light as we do the Sox.
For instance, there’s the notion that this is the second time Belichick has screwed over Brady. That this is all eerily similar to the last time the quarterback restructured his deal with the expectation that the Pats would keep his buddy and favorite target around, only to see BB pinch his ass cheeks together and send Deion Branch to Seattle. And there’s some truth to that. I mean, there’s no doubt that Brady was pissed then and is pissed now -- as pissed as any of us would be in the situation. But there’s been a little revisionist history as to how that Branch decision actually panned out for the Pats. In the aftermath of this Welker deal, I’ve seen and heard more than a few people argue: “Oh yeah, well how did it work the last time Belichick pulled this stunt?”
Well, the last time Belichick pulled this stunt the Pats went 12-4, destroyed the Jets in the Wild Card game, upset the top-seeded Chargers in the divisional round and took a 21-6 lead into halftime of the AFC Championship in Indy. They were 30 minutes of football and a date with Rex Grossman away from another ring. But in the second half, it was the defense that let New England down, and opened the door for the Colts' miraculous comeback.
When the season ended, and with Branch reduced to irrelevance out in Seattle, Belichick responded by signing Donte Stallworth, trading for Randy Moss and some guy named Welker, building one of the most impressive, dominant and consistent offensive attacks in the league. An attack that, to this day, is still on top of the world, featuring the best tight end combo in the NFL (one that’s locked up for the foreseeable future), with another talented TE -- Jake Ballard -- set to come back from injury, and a deeper and more versatile running game than Brady has ever had.
As for the commotion over the “new” Welker: Is the idea that Danny Amendola -- who, by the way, they brought in for $2M less in guaranteed cash -- can serve as a viable replacement any crazier than the idea that Welker could replace Troy Brown? Because that’s what happened in 2007. Only Welker came in with a far less impressive resume then than what Amendola brings now. And in terms of what’s most important -- aka RINGS -- what Brown did for the Pats is harder to replace than what Welker did.
I mean, there’s this theory that the Patriots will never win now that they’ve let Welker go. That they’ve pissed away the last few good years of Brady’s career and eliminated any chance for another title. But how can you say that without acknowledging that the Pats never won with Welker.
And I don’t know, maybe that’s part of what makes this all so hard to deal with. On a larger scale, Welker’s departure represents a somewhat depressing shift in the state of Boston sports. He’s the first in a new generation of Boston superstars to leave town without a ring.
Seriously, think about the most scandalous and emotional players departures of the last decade. (Forget Randy Moss, because he’s a total wild card, and -- factoring in the Brady injury -- was only here for two significant seasons.)
Johnny Damon. Pedro Martinez. Ray Allen. Tim Thomas. Kevin Youkilis. Mike Vrabel. Manny Ramirez. Richard Seymour. Lawyer Milloy. Deion Branch.
They all won.
But Welker’s a throwback. He’s Joe Thornton. He’s Nomar. He’s Wade Boggs. He’s Mo Vaughn. He’s Antoine Walker.
Not in every way, but in one specific way. And that sucks. Because Welker deserved better. He deserved a ride on the Duck Boats. He deserved a spot among the all-time greats, and it’s hard to get into that club -- unless you're Ted Williams or Carl Yastrzemski -- without a ring to your name. The fact that he’ll never get a chance, combined with the way he was treated on the way out, can make you mad. It should make you mad. It’s left us all angry as hell.
But to say that they can’t win one without him is crazy, because they never won one with him. You can’t say that he’s an irreplaceable cog in a championship team because that championship doesn’t exist.
At the same time, I know that you can’t say “only time will tell” without it being a cop out, but . . .
Pretending you actually know what will happen is a flat out lie. And assuming you have any clue of what’s really going on inside Bill Belichick’s head is flat out foolish.
Don’t you think he has a plan? Don’t you think he understands the ramifications of the decisions that he’s made and has thought out the next three, four or five steps in advance? Hasn’t he earned the chance to at least follow through with the rest of his offseason before we fall back on the same old “Belichick’s a cheapskate; Belichick’s a tyrant; Belichick doesn’t know what he’s doing” mantra that pops up every time something like this happens -- right before he pulls another move that changes everyone’s mind?
I say yes. I say it sucks that Wes Welker’s gone. I say it really sucks that he’s gone to Denver. I say it really, really sucks that he’ll never be apart of a Super Bowl winner in New England.
But I think I’ll take a deep breath and a few months before declaring the Super Bowl dream dead, and Belichick’s more-than-well calculated decision an outright mistake.