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Peers took a shining to stars

'I look at him, and he's the same guy when he came here two years ago.' Patriots owner Robert Kraft on Pro Bowler Wes Welker (above) 'I look at him, and he's the same guy when he came here two years ago.' Patriots owner Robert Kraft on Pro Bowler Wes Welker (above)
By Mike Reiss
Globe Staff / December 17, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker and kicker Stephen Gostkowski earned their first Pro Bowl berths yesterday, and like a presidential tally of red and blue states, it was most telling to see the breakdown of how it unfolded.

The fans did not vote them in, but their peers and the coaches did.

That had to make the news that much sweeter for Welker and Gostkowski, because while the Pro Bowl in early February has turned into must-not-see TV, the distinction of being selected to play still has significant meaning, especially the way Welker and Gostkowski were chosen.

Both are especially deserving.

Welker is second in the NFL with 102 receptions and Gostkowski is tied for the top spot in the league with 30 field goals, but perhaps because they lack name recognition, and aren't the Terrell Owens look-at-me types, they were on the outside looking in when fan voting concluded last Tuesday. Neither was in the top five at their positions.

Welker was behind Brandon Marshall (Broncos), Randy Moss (Patriots), Andre Johnson (Texans), Reggie Wayne (Colts), and Hines Ward (Steelers).

Gostkowski couldn't crack Dan Carpenter (Dolphins), Rob Bironas (Titans), Adam Vinatieri (Colts), Jeff Reed (Steelers), and Sebastian Janikowski (Raiders).

Players and coaches voted late last week, and that's when things began to shift, the results speaking volumes as to how Welker and Gostkowski are viewed in the testosterone-filled weight rooms across the NFL, and the dimly lit offices where coaches stay up late devising game plans and strategies against the top players.

The Patriots had eight players voted to the Pro Bowl last season.

Welker, now in his fifth season, has had a borderline MVP-type season, his candidacy boosted because he's been the player most responsible for easing quarterback Matt Cassel into the huddle following Tom Brady's season-ending knee injury that could have torpedoed the Patriots' season after just 15 offensive plays.

Despite his size in a big man's game, the 5-foot-9-inch, 185-pound slot-receiver-turned-starter quickly became Cassel's security blanket, his excellence in the short passing game keeping the offense afloat until Cassel became more consistent with the long ball.

If there is a stat that best reflects Welker's value in that area, it's yards after the catch. Entering Sunday's win over the Raiders, the shifty, quick-stepping Welker had a remarkable 656 yards after the catch, almost 100 more than the next closest player, Cardinals receiver Anquan Boldin (564).

Sixty-five percent of Welker's receiving yards have come after the catch, when he turns from receiver to running back.

It's the type of output that players and coaches truly appreciate, because while the long passes might end up on more highlights, the short ones and what comes after can be equally important.

The way Welker rings up yards reflects his personality - nothing flashy.

"He's just so understated, so modest, so humble," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said last night. "I look at him, and he's the same guy when he came here two years ago. Then you see him on the field take that hit in the Pittsburgh game and come back and have the performances he's had the last two weeks, and it's remarkable."

That hit, a crunching blow by Steelers safety Ryan Clark, snapped a streak that showed how important Welker has been to the Patriots on a weekly basis. Prior to being knocked out of that Nov. 30 game in the third quarter, Welker had caught six or more passes in each of the season's first 11 games, becoming the first NFL player to open a season with such a run.

Like Welker, Gostkowski has does the little things, such as his career-high 16 touchbacks, which ranks fourth in the AFC and are more impressive when considering he often kicks in tougher conditions than his peers.

In earning the Pro Bowl berth, it is also notable that one of the players Gostkowski leapfrogged was the player he replaced. Just three years ago when he arrived at Gillette Stadium as a fourth-round draft choice, Gostkowski was trying to escape Vinatieri's large shadow.

"It's been fun to be here and to be able to come after a guy who has done so well, and still get some of the respect he got, because no one can get on his level," said Gostkowski, who credited holder Chris Hanson and snapper Lonie Paxton. "To be mentioned as not being a letdown to him has been nice."

Early last week, it looked as if Gostkowski and Welker would be in for a big Pro Bowl letdown based on fan voting. Instead, they ended up getting what they deserved with players and coaches voting them in, the highest compliment of all.

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