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Limited Welker leads to ridiculous theories

Posted by Eric Wilbur, Boston.com Staff  September 12, 2012 09:36 AM

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Making conclusions after Week 1 of the NFL season is foolish at best, lazy at worst, so it's interesting to hear how many people wonder if Bill Belichick is working Patriots receiver Wes Welker out of town after he had only three catches for 14 yards in Sunday's win against Tennessee. Never mind that in his Patriots career, Welker has had eight other games (not including the game against Houston in which he tore his ACL), when he had three catches or fewer, including a pair in his breakout 2007 season. In fact, on 15 separate occasions during his time in New England, Welker has managed just four or fewer catches in a game.

But where there's smoke, there are far too many brains grinding, looking for answers. After all, Welker is playing under the franchise tag, he didn't see as much playing time in Tennessee as he did last year, and not to mention, there was that whole "bad pass/dropped ball" that began in Indianapolis last February, despite how a seeming majority seem content in laying the blame on the wide receiver.

So, the easy thought process is that Belichick is playing him out of town, content to use other weapons such as Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, and Brandon Lloyd the rest of the way...why? Because he's showing him up for the Super Bowl loss? That's one idiotic theory that was bandied about this week in some circles, as was the idea that Belichick and Josh McDaniels are phasing him out sooner rather than later, with Welker's free agency looming. Perhaps there's some credence to the latter, as the team plans to forge ahead next season without doling out a multi-year contract, or franchising the player for a second straight season.

Or maybe, and I know, this is going to sound crazy, maybe the Patriots just have a lot of weapons for Brady to work with.

Welker may remain the go-to guy for Brady when the Patriots want to move the chains, but Stevan Ridley did much of that work for New England on Sunday, rushing for 125 yards. Meanwhile, Welker sat on the sidelines mysteriously being punished by Bill Belichick as if he made a snide reference about Mike Munchak's feet.

Except, that's not really the case.

Enter CBS Sports' Nick Underhill, who re-watched the game tape, and seems to want to put a quick end to the "Welker era is dead" talk.

Obviously, there's a lot of plays where Welker isn't on the field, but it wasn't as bad as the numbers suggest. Here are a few things we picked up from the review:
1. Welker was on the sidelines for 24 plays. Of those, 14 were runs, two were goal-line plays, and one was a knee. That means there were only seven passing plays where he wasn't on the field. He lost the second series of the game to Edelman (four plays) and also stayed sidelined for the final five plays, all of which were runs. Take the latter series away and Welker's snap count creeps back up around 70 percent.
2. There's a misconception that Julian Edelman was in a rotation with Welker and took 23 snaps from him. That's wrong. The two were on the field together on a number of plays. The real person taking snaps from Welker was Aaron Hernandez, who split out wide on 22 plays, including a number of what would have been two-receiver sets.
3. It was a little bit surprising that Welker was only targeted five times, but Rob Gronkowski (six) and Hernandez (seven) didn't see many passes come their way either. Tom Brady only dropped back to pass 31 times. If you want to blame someone for taking away opportunities from Welker, blame Stevan Ridley and the running backs for carrying the ball 35 times.
4. Final thought: Welker may be on a one-year deal, but it seems ridiculous to suggest that New England is preparing for the future by becoming less dependent on him now. The Patriots only care about winning and they have a better chance of doing that with Welker on the field. As long as he is here and under contract, Bill Belichick is going to use him.

Underhill's second point is the most interesting to note, of course, as the Patriots see Hernandez as an intriguing weapon, and could be the real reason why Welker isn't back next season. But if Brady is able to spread those 18 targets out among those three guys, can anyone tell me why that's not a good thing?

Welker may not be back in 2013, but to suggest Belichick and Co. have decided to phase him out after four quarters of football is, while an approach to keep watching, an assumption that will probably be rendered silly in the coming weeks. Remember, after Game 1 last season, Chad Henne was headed to the Pro Bowl, so let's all just relax.

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About the Author

Eric Wilbur is a Boston.com sports columnist who is still in awe of what Dana Kiecker pulled off that one time in Toronto. He lives in the Boston area with his wife and three children. Comments and suggestions for the best Buffalo wing spots are encouraged.

Contact Eric Wilbur by e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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