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Wes Welker in possession of big play

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  September 13, 2011 03:56 AM

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MIAMI -- It's practically a part of Wes Welker's name. Possession receiver. If he had business cards they would probably say, "Wes Welker, professional possession receiver."

There's nothing wrong with being a possession receiver, per se. But in the highlight-happy, short-attention span sports society we live in, being labeled a possession receiver is almost a pejorative, a bit of a backhanded compliment, like being told a pair of pants is slimming on you. Except maybe we were all wrong to brand Tom Brady's favorite target as merely a possession receiver.

That's selling the 5-foot, 9-inch Welker short because possession receivers don't score 99-yard touchdowns like he did last night in the fourth quarter of the Patriots' convincing 38-24 season-opening victory over the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium. Blow the top off the defense? Welker certainly did. No deep threat required.

The 99 Restaurant is going to have to add a Welker entree to the menu. And the next time someone refers to Welker as a possession receiver? "Well, if they do I'll definitely remind them of that play," said Welker of his 99 1/2 yard TD.

One play after Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne misfired on a fade route to Brian Hartline on fourth and goal from the half-yard line, Tom Brady dropped back to pass in his own end zone. After changing the play pre-snap, he whipped a pass to Welker, who was in one-on-one coverage with Miami cornerback Benny (Poor) Sapp. Welker caught the ball at about his 18-yard line and with safety Reshad Jones taking a poor angle, he simply outran Sapp and raced into the history books, tying the NFL record for the longest touchdown from scrimmage and defying perception and stereotypes with each stride.

"Wes is a great overall receiver. People think one thing about him. You'll see he'll hurt you in many different ways," said Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty. "Fortunately for us we get to see it every day in practice and get better with it."

It was the 12th time in NFL history a 99-yard touchdown pass play was scored. The last came in 2008, when Gus Frerotte and Bernard Berrian connected. Welker's long-running reception is a feat -- not to be confused with Welker's favorite word, feet -- that Randy Moss never accomplished. Neither did Jerry Rice, Lynn Swann, Bob Hayes, Lance Alworth, Don Hutson or any of the game's other revered big-play practitioners.

The 99-yard TD was Welker's second score of the game and part of an eight-catch, 160-yard effort. That's 20 yards per catch. Might be time to talk contract extension for Welker.

Welker is not a possession receiver, but he is a possessed one. He seems intent on proving that he deserves a new contract and that last season's loss of agility and explosiveness after the catch was only temporary.

Welker, who is in the final year of the five-year contract, wasn't just throwing out the proverbial contract negotiating ploy during training camp when he declared, a season removed from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, that he felt like he had gained a step from before the knee surgery and proclaimed: "This is the best I've felt in my career."

"Yeah, I think so. I went 99 and a half yards," said Welker, who had a 2-yard touchdown that broke a 14-14 tie in the third quarter. "Definitely, I cleared up some of that. No, I definitely feel great. It's been great being able to train and not rehab over the offseason. Hopefully, I can just keep it going. It's just one game right now. We got a tough one next week against San Diego. We just got to push through and keep grinding."

Welker's expedited return from ACL surgery last year was downright remarkable. He had surgery on the knee in February of last year and was on the field seven months later for the 2010 season-opener against the Cincinnati Bengals. But in rushing back, Welker may have done himself a disservice. There were questions about whether Welker, the NFL's leading receiver since 2007 (432 catches), had lost a step.

For the first time in his Patriots career, he failed to corral 100 balls and his yards per reception were 9.9, the lowest of his career. After the season, Welker, who did make the Pro Bowl, went so far as to tell a Boston reporter that he didn't do anything to justify a contract extension. Someone must have ripped that page out of the Scott Boras handbook.

It was probably not entirely a coincidence that Welker's big night came against his former team. Not only does Welker light up Miami like a Xenon headlight, but in the discussion of whether the Patriots should back up the Brinks truck to keep Brady's security blanket the argument was made that other slot receivers could post Welker's gaudy reception totals with TB12 chucking passes in their direction, including Miami's Davone Bess.

In front of Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who offered a triple fist-pump on the 99-yarder, Welker made a pretty compelling case for why even at age 30 he's worthy of a lucrative long-term deal from the Patriots, who historically don't pony up to pay pass catchers.

As for all that talk about the Patriots needing a deep threat to allow Welker to flourish and do the dirty work underneath. That's tripe. If Chad Ochocinco was supposed to be the one clearing out coverages for Welker, then how do you explain last night? Ochocinco had one catch for 14 yards and was targeted three times, even though Brady took to the air 48 times on his way to a career-high 517-yard night.

The metronomic Welker has now caught a pass in 79 consecutive regular-season games and 62 straight with the Patriots. He is one shy of tying Ben Coates's Patriots mark of 63 straight games with at least one reception. That will fall next week against San Diego.

Until then it's probably time for Mr. 99 to change those business cards. The job title just isn't accurate. Welker is much more than a possession receiver. Just ask the Miami Dolphins.

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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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