That question has dogged the Patriots for the past 11 months. The Patriots took the easy way out when they franchised Welker for $9.515 million in 2012. The Patriot Way prevailed. The team figured the wide receiver had maxed out on his productivity. After all, last season, he caught 122 passes for 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns. Welker is going to fall short this season - just barely. Heading into Sunday's game against the Dolphins, Welker has only 110 catches for 1,260 yards and a measly five touchdowns.
But Welker's numbers are carrying as much impact this season as they have in any since he's been in New England. His presence on the team, as the resident wily veteran - even as Deion Branch and Donte' Stallworth move on and off the roster - and go-to guy for Tom Brady has increased his value beyond the mere matrix of the NFL salary cap. He's not so much a product of the system, as he is a main ingredient. This season, Welker became first NFL player in history with five 100-catch seasons. Marvin Harrison, Jerry Rice, and Brandon Marshall have four. He's also booked his fifth 100-catch, 1,000-plus yard receiving season in New England since his arrival in 2007, missing only 2010. Even during the Randy Moss era, Welker had more catches in the three full seasons they played together full-time (346-250), while Moss barely outdistanced Welker in overall yardage (3,765 to 3,688) due to his presence as the lone deep threat.
The most important number for Welker - aside from any figures he can put in the post-season or in the Super Bowl - is $11.418 million (or 120% of his current salary). That's the franchise-tag salary cap hit the Patriots would have to take if they decided to franchise Welker again this offseason. While that number on its own merits is quite menacing for a team that loves to put a low-end price tag on every position but the star quarterback, it's even larger when combined with the $22 million cap hit the Patriots will take courtesy of Brady thanks to his previously-restructured contract. Those two alone would account for roughly a quarter of the team's projected cap in 2013.
How un-Belichickian is that?
The Patriot Way, or more specifically everyone's way, is to remove all emotion and sentimentality from any and all contract negotiations. The notable exception was Tom Brady's most-recent contract extension, which came to a sudden conclusion the hours following Brady's auto accident and much-closer-call-than-we-all-want-to-think about on Commonwealth Ave., on Sept. 9, 2010. There's no doubt that Brady and the Patriots came to a halting realization about how much they both mean to each other and what would/will happen to the team once Brady is no longer playing quarterback on that day. While the contract was all-but-finalized before the accident and Brady had spoken the previous day about how he wanted to seize the day and take a "different approach" to life, the timing of his accident and closing of the deal were not simple coincidence.
If you look at the numbers, it makes little sense for the Patriots to either franchise Welker or try to outbid the likes of the Texans, Bengals, Colts (all of whom should have very able QBs and more than $20 million of available 2013 cap space) or perhaps even the Giants (assuming they don't re-sign Victor Cruz who is making a mere $540,000 this season). Slot receivers are plentiful and, as impressive as Welker's career has been in New England, his most notable post-season moment was his drop/non-catch/bad-Brady-pass that would have closed out New England's victory in Super Bowl XLVI. The monstrous chunk that a Brady and market-value-Welker would devour from the team's salary cap could be simply too much for this team to handle given its Moneyball-esque devotion to valuing positions as opposed to players.
There is always the option the team could re-sign Welker to a longer-term deal at a lower annual cost or offer him a deal structured to limit the cap impact until the Brady hit is lessened. But Welker got burned by the Patriots when he took his "#leapoffaith" and signed his tender on May 15 and followed it up with this infamous tweet:
I signed my tender today. I love the game and I love my teammates! Hopefully doing the right thing gets the right results. #leapoffaith— Wes Welker (@WesWelker) May 15, 2012
He might not be in the mood to do the team any favors when it comes to saving money.
Welker's role and future came into question earlier in the season after he had just eight catches in New England's first two games. He's 31 and his body is probably 50 in NFL years given the beating he endures each week. During the foolishness, reasonable people, talk show hosts and sports columnists pontificated on how he was being phased out and the Patriots had already moved on to the Brandon Lloyd Era. Things began rolling in Welker's favor in New England's loss to the Ravens in Week 3, when he had eight catches for 142 yards. He followed that up with nine receptions for 129 yards against the Bills, 13 balls for 104 yards against Denver and 10 catches for 138 yards at Seattle. Of course, the Patriots lost two of those games.
Welker's numbers have benefited from the absences of Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski, who have missed a combined 11 games this season due to injuries. Those two targets were each signed to long-term deals in the offseason, pushing Welker closer to the I-95 South exit at the end of this season.
With a healthy Gronkowski and Hernandez as long-term options for Brady, Welker's presence in New England is not the necessity that it might seem. There's only one ball, and both are more suitable choices over the long term, given their ages, and in the case of Gronkowski, his immense stature.
The flip side to this are those pesky intangibles - the seeming comfort that Brady finds in finding Welker at the most important times. To wit - during Sunday's struggle against the mighty Jaguars, Welker and Lloyd were each targeted a dozen times. Welker had 10 catches for 88 yards (Lloyd had six receptions). But when the game was in the balance and the Patriots were facing a third-and-goal from the 2 on the second play of the fourth quarter - it was Welker who slipped open on the right side, making the catch and barely extending his 5-foot-9 frame into the end zone.
More importantly for Welker, he's at the center of Brady's comfort zone. Time and time again, Brady goes to Welker when all else has failed. He's as much a last resort for Brady as a first target. Then there's that pass out to the flat, where Welker is often standing uncovered at the line of scrimmage and manages to pick up five or six yards after the catch. Brady and Welker connected on that for the 235,348th time on Sunday. And when the Patriots are successfully running their no-huddle offense, which they need to use more earlier and more often, Welker slides from left to right to inside to outside on each snap, leaving defenses wondering where he went from one play to the next. Brady and Welker have combined for 590 completions during their Patriots days.
Welker has been a money player for the Patriots in since his arrival from Miami in 2007. Whether he stays a Patriot will, in the end, come down to dollars and cents, as much as sense. If money is the issue, then he's gone. Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch (11 catches for 133 yards against the Eagles) and the Patriots had a messy divorce after the 2005 season. Before Branch was finally traded to the Seahawks in September of 2006, he held out during camp, filed a pair of grievances against the team and racked up $600,000 in fines. After the trade, the Patriots filed tampering charges against the Jets just for good measure.
There's another factor playing into the Welker contract situation. He's a married man this time around (he was engaged last May). Now those of us who have been married (23 years in my case) know anyone who is on the verge of testing the NFL free-agency market is not going to do it without the input of the Mrs. Patriots' fans should hope that Anna Burns really likes it the weather in New England and all those kind-hearted souls who (usually in silence) cheer on her husband at Gillette Stadium. There's no doubt he'll be able to earn more money elsewhere.
My wife always hated my mustache, until I put handle bars on it! #gamechanger— Wes Welker (@WesWelker) December 8, 2012
Who among the citizens of Patriot Nation would not want Welker back next season - at either the franchise tag price or under a longer-term deal? The trio of Hernandez, Gronkowski and Welker got the Patriots all the way to the Super Bowl. Having all three together healthy this time around might be the edge the Patriots would need to actually win the Super Bowl this time. Welker is a fan favorite because of his resiliency and his personality, which has slowly emerged each week during his sponsored post-game appearances on Comcast Sports New England.
But we're talking about the Patriots. And as Michael Corleone put it:
And business in Foxborough can get ugly at times.
Here are this week's rankings. Teams are listed with their records and last week's rankings. Join us for our in-game Patriots chat on Sunday starting at 4:15 p.m. and again on Monday afternoon for our look ahead at the NFL playoffs.
1. Falcons (13-2; 2): Have a feeling they won't get much respect until they win a playoff game.
2. Broncos (12-3; 3): Hoping the OBF Power Rankings Curse continues this week.
3. Patriots (11-4; 4): About only thing enjoyable about watching last Sunday's game in Jacksonville was walking out of EverBank Field with a smile on my face.
4. Seahawks (10-5; 13): The Seahawks have outscored their opponents 150-30 in the past three weeks. Richard "U Mad Bro" Sherman also said Thursday he won his PED-suspension appeal. But the big news in Seattle this week was that no Seahawks players were involved or harmed in a fatal shooting at nightclub where several players were partying on early Monday - along with about 600 other people.
5. Packers (11-4; 6): Green Bay visits Minnesota Sunday and has a chance to knock the Vikings out the playoffs. The Packers have won 10 of 11 and can wrap up the No. 2 spot in the NFC. Team to watch in the NFC as it all seems to be coming together at the right time.
6. 49ers: (10-4-1; 1): When the 49ers fell behind 28-3 to the Seahawks Sunday night, we weren't surprised when Colin Kaepernick didn't rally them back to make things competitive.
7. Texans (12-3; 5): Softer than Josh Beckett's belly.
8. Ravens (10-5; 8): Jim Harbaugh said Ed Reed did "everything he could" to avoid his illegal hit on Victor Cruz. Apparently the NFL didn't think so and fined Reed $50,000 on Thursday. The league didn't have to fine Reed or the Ravens for the beatdown they delivered on the Giants. That one was on the house.
9. Redskins (9-6; 13): RGIII and the Redskins play host to Dallas Sunday night with the NFC East title on the line. This one could be epic, bring back memories of Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier calling those 4 p.m. Sunday showdowns between the likes of Roger Staubach and the "Over the Hill Gang." All we need is Brent, Irv and Phyllis in the pre-game show with Jimmy the Greek laying 6-5 odds on Django over Calvin Candie.
10. Colts (10-5; 9): Coach Chuck Pagano returned to work this week just in time for a meaningless game - at least for Indianapolis - against the Texans. At least the Colts are playing at home so they might at least try.
11. Vikings (9-6; 16): Adrian Peterson for MVP? If the Vikings make the playoffs and Peterson is able to gain the 208 yards he needs to break Eric Dickerson's single-season rushing record of 2,105 yards - it would be tough even for Brady or Manning to argue against him winning the award.
12. Bears (9-6; 8): Where's Bryce Harper when you need him? Bears defensive tackle Henry Melton ripped into the Lions, calling them a "dirty" operation. Detroit center Dominic Raiola fired back: "It's tiresome, especially from a guy like this, a guy that didn't even play the past two weeks. ... I don't know what to say anymore. In my book, he's a clown. That's all I got."
13. Bengals (9-6; 12): Cincinnati clinched a playoff berth for the second straight season with its victory over Pittsburgh last week. The only other time the Bengals made the playoffs in consecutive seasons came in 1981-82, five years before QB Andy Dalton was born.
14. Cowboys (8-6; 14):Tony Romo and Jason Garrett get one last shot at redemption this week. Thinking at least one won't be around next season if the Cowboys don't win Sunday night.
15. Giants (8-7; 11): The non-Patriots highlight of the season may have been the Giants' radio broadcast of Sunday's 33-14 loss to the Ravens. After the Ravens took a 27-7 lead at the half, analyst and former Giant great Carl Banks said: "Looks like two rings are enough for some players." Announcer Bob Papa earlier added: "It looks like the Ravens are blitzing eight players and dropping eight players back in coverage." Banks called the Giants a "get right" team. "If you have a problem with your running game - you play the Giants to get it right. If you have a problem with your defense, you play the Giants to get it right." He lit into Eli Manning, saying he hadn't seen the QB "play this bad since his rookie season." To which Papa mused: "Carl, it's pretty hard to win a game when you have zero points."
16. Steelers (7-7; 15): Ben Roethisberger will be home for the playoffs. It's been all downhill this season since that opening kickoff in Gotham City wiped out most of the team.
17. Saints (7-8; 17): This week's "Stats Are For Losers" entry. The Saints rank second in scoring (28.2 points), third in offense (408.9 yards) and second in passing (307.9 yards) per game. They've been out of the playoff picture for about a month.
18. Rams (7-7-1; 21): Steven Jackson told The Associated Press on Thursday that Sunday's game against Seattle might be the final of his career, despite the fact that he's only 29 and needs only 10 yards for his eighth-straight 1,000-yard season. . "If I have to write my story," Jackson said, "I'd rather go out like Barry Sanders and leaving people to want more than to leave too late." Are you paying attention nearly every other professional athlete everywhere?
19. Dolphins (7-8; 19): Heading into last Sunday's game, the Dolphins were still mathematically alive in the playoff hunt. Reggie Bush scored three TDs and Miami beat Buffalo 24-10, but the dream died moments later when the Bengals beat Pittsburgh. Said first-year coach Joe Philbin: "It is what it is." Hmm, where have we heard that before?
20. Buccaneers (6-9; 18): Five straight losses have the Bucs in the hunt for "Second Worst Team in Florida Honors."
21. Chargers (6-9; 20): How long until some desperate team decides Norv Turner can turn it around for them?
22. Titans (5-10; 22): Not even 89-year-old team owner Bud Adams could sit through watching all of Sunday's 55-7 loss at Green Bay from his home in Houston. "I was pretty upset," Adams told The Tennessean newspaper. "I just didn't want to watch any more of that mess." The crowd at Sunday's finale in Jacksonville could approach double digits.
23. Jets (6-9; 23): An absolute joy to watch all season. Butt-Fumble will get the start Sunday at Buffalo thanks to the concussion suffered by Greg McElroy - who took 11 sacks last week against San Diego. Meanwhile, Tim Tebow got snubbed again but said Thursday he's "willing to do anything" Sunday to help out against the Bills. Earlier in the week, Tebow fought off rumors that he asked not to be used in the "wildcat offense." He also found time to hit Twitter on his birthday:
Matthew 1:21 - She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. #MerryCHRISTmas— Tim Tebow (@TimTebow) December 25, 2012
24. Cardinals (5-10; 24): We have a Brian Hoyer sighting. He's surfaced in Arizona, where he relieved Ryan Lindley last week against the Bears. Sunday, he'll be the Cardinals' fourth starting QB of the season. And some day, he can tell his grandchildren that he used to hold a clipboard for Tom Brady.
25. Bills (5-10; 25): Biggest challenge after nearly 30 years in journalism, coming up with something to say about the Bills after 17 weeks of the season.
26. Browns (5-10; 26): Another bridge year in Cleveland comes to a merciful conclusion. Pat Shurmur -- 9-22 in his two seasons -- is one of several NFL coaches expected to be fired Monday.
27. Panthers (6-9; 27): Cam Newton was fined $21,000 for bumping a referee in the fourth quarter of Sunday's victory over the Raiders. Lucky he didn't hit him with his laptop.
28. Lions (4-11; 28): In the way-too-little-too-late-category, former Lions offensive lineman Lomas Brown said Thursday he "regrets" missing a block on purpose in a 1994 game in order help teammate Scott Mitchell get injured. Last week, Brown bragged about the play and on Wednesday, Mitchell called it "reprehensible." The rest of us would agree 100 percent.
29. Eagles (4-11; 29): Looks like Nick Foles is the future of this franchise. Good luck, Philly fan.
30. Raiders (4-11; 30): Carson Palmer's season ended when he suffered cracked ribs and a bruised lung in Sunday's loss to Carolina. It might have been the end of his career. Palmer is notorious for his financial thrift and has more than enough money to live comfortably for many generations. He's due $13 million next season. Even he must know that he's not worth that kind of money.
31. Chiefs (2-13; 31): Kansas City sent five players to the Pro Bowl despite its 2-13 record. Outside linebacker Tamba Hali and strong safety Eric Berry are starters for the Jan. 27 game in Honolulu. Punter Dustin Colquitt, inside linebacker Derrick Johnson and running back Jamaal Charles also made the AFC team.
32. Jaguars (2-13; 32): Credit where credit is due - the Jaguars showed up against the Patriots last week, along with about 40,000 of their fans. Well done for a team with a dozen losses. Just wait until Tebow arrives.
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