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No. 83 is the team MVP

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 15, 2009 02:05 PM
By NFL standards Wes Welker is 5-foot-nothing, and a hundred-and-nothing pounds. But he is everything to the New England Patriots right now.

Belying his diminutive stature, Welker is the biggest reason that coach Bill Belichick and the Patriots head to Buffalo this weekend still atop the AFC East at 8-5. Without Welker's inspiration and perspiration against the Carolina Panthers last Sunday, when he had 10 catches for 105 yards and lifted a lifeless team to a 20-10 victory, the Patriots would be trying to explain away a three-game losing streak and a season on the brink.

The Patriots might have more famous players (Tom Brady) or more feared ones (Randy Moss), but they don't have a more valuable one than Welker.

The humble, hard-working wide receiver with the Oklahoma twang and incomparable game has stepped up and filled a leadership void, risked life and limb to keep the chains moving over the middle and oh, by the way is fourth in the NFL in punt return average (13.0). (His 69-yard punt return against the Colts that set up a Brady to Moss touchdown that gave the Patriots a 31-14 lead would have been one of the biggest plays of season if not for fourth-and-2.)

You don't believe me that Welker is the Patriots' MVP? Then ask the gold standard for invaluable Patriots slot receivers/punt returners, Mr. Patriot himself, Troy Brown.

"Well, in my opinion he is the MVP of their football team," said Brown. "If he is not getting it, I don't know who should get it. He has held that offense together. He has caught the ball well and taken shots. He's not giving in to the double team and is still finding ways to get open, when teams try to take him away."

Brady is the face of the franchise, the spine of the Patriot Reign and the biggest reason this team has three Lombardi Trophies. That is indisputable. Moss, despite his current controversy, is a pass catcher nonpareil and future Hall of Famer. But Welker, who despite missing two games leads the NFL in receptions with 105 and is second in receiving yards with 1,158, is the heartbeat of the Patriots' offense.

He has been since he was acquired from the Dolphins three seasons ago in deal that now looks like a bigger steal than the heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.

Looking back upon the Patriots' record-setting 2007 season -- were stats for losers then? -- it's now apparent that Welker didn't just play a supporting role in the aerial act.

Welker caught a team-record 112 passes for 1,175 yards in '07. Last season with Brady shelved with an ACL injury and Matt Cassel at QB, Welker caught 111 passes for 1,165 yards. If it were not for the gale force gusts in the season-finale at Buffalo, which bent the goalposts like Gumby and made passing nearly impossible, Welker would have surpassed his '07 totals.

It was not a coincidence that both Brady and the Patriots' offense looked out of sorts in the beginning of the season, when Welker missed two of the first three games with a knee injury.

The offense didn't kick it into gear until Tom-Tom re-established his Welker GPS against Tennessee, when the Patriots unleashed a 59-point avalanche and Welker collected 10 receptions for 150 yards and two touchdowns, the first of his five games with 10 receptions or more this season.

Like Brown before him and another No. 83, Deion Branch, Welker has become Brady's most valuable pass-catcher.

"Wes is that comfort blanket," said Brown. "I think when it is all said and done he looks to Wes in those crucial situations, even short of a first down he has the confidence to get the ball to him and let him run for the first down, if the pass is short of the sticks. A couple of teams have those type of blankets for them, but I don't think they compare to what Wes is doing right now."

Welker's case for team MVP goes beyond the numbers, beyond averaging 105 receiving yards per game, being on pace for 133 catches, which would be the second most ever in an NFL season, and recording a third-straight 100-reception season. He has become this team's conscience, an emotional compass at a time when they seem to have lost their (Patriots) way.

He isn't just a possession receiver. He is a possessed receiver.

After calling out his teammates following a stunning loss to his former team in Miami, saying everyone needed to look in the mirror, Welker answered the call against Carolina.

Perhaps no play signifies Welker's sine qua non status than his 100th catch of the season, a 6-yard grab that concluded with him getting buried by Charles Godfrey. Welker was slow to get up and had every reason to stay down.

Instead on the next play, third and 2, he responded with a 13-yard catch-and-run, landing on the ball as he was lassoed out of bounds. He bounced up waving his arms, willfully lifting the "LateGate" torpor that was hanging over the team and its fans like a foul fog. That was the initial first down on 96-yard drive that may have saved the Patriots' season, a drive on which Welker had five catches for 64 yards.

While Moss went M.I.A., when his team needed him most, Welker became an MVP.  

So, while Brady and Belichick did their best to shield Moss from criticism they also saluted Welker's heroic performance. Brady went on WEEI's "Dennis & Callahan" and paid Welker the ultimate compliment, saying he is the type of player that typifies what the Patriots stand for and why they rose to NFL royalty.

Brown, who actually was one of those players, agreed.

"I can understand exactly what Tom is saying when he says that Wes is the type of guy that helped build that franchise to the way it is now," he said.

Welker is the type of player the Patriots used to have a locker room full of and the fact they don't any more merely makes him an even more valuable asset, the most valuable one of all. 

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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