Diligent Welker ran a precise comeback route
FOXBOROUGH — The Patriots open their preseason schedule tonight against the Saints, and perhaps the biggest question is whether Wes Welker plays or not.
“I don’t know,’’ coach Bill Belichick said. “I’m not saying he will. I’m not saying he won’t. We’ll evaluate it and see.’’
The mere possibility of Welker taking the field at this point — 191 days after he had his left knee reconstructed — is a testament to the All-Pro’s approach and work ethic.
Just don’t tell anyone involved that this was unexpected.
“We’ve certainly had time,’’ said Utah-based specialist Alex Guerrero, who directed Welker’s rehab in California and New England, just a year after running a similar show for Tom Brady. “With the way we do our rehab, we put expectations on ourselves. And like it was with Tommy, we’re not setting unrealistic goals. We set goals we can achieve.
“We knew he’d have to work hard to do it. But if we do work hard, we knew it was extremely realistic.’’
So what is “it’’?
“For him, the goal has always been toward Week 1,’’ said Guerrero, who has worked through the process with Patriots trainers. “It won’t be our decision ultimately; that’s the team’s decision. But the focus has been to have him prepared for Week 1.’’
That was the plan as soon as Guerrero and Welker started the process coming off the surgery, and just about everything has hummed along as expected.
At this point, Welker would be at no more risk of injury than any other player, from a medical standpoint. But the idea is to have the receiver at his optimal level of performance for the season opener Sept. 12, and all he does between now and then will be working toward that goal.
Welker has been wearing a brace to provide medial and lateral stabilization for the knee, and one goal is to prepare to play without it. As Guerrero put it, the idea is to reach a “comfort level’’ out of the brace.
“If it was up to Wes,’’ Guerrero said, “I think he’d be out of the brace now.’’
The other part that remains is what Guerrero calls “finding your knee.’’ Welker has gotten the strength in his quadriceps and hamstring up to speed, but there is still the process of reaching normalcy.
“That takes some time,’’ Guerrero said. “Regardless of how well you are physically, there’s still the component where the left knee doesn’t feel exactly like the right one. You need time to find the knee.
“We went through it with Tommy, to get to the point where the left knee felt like the other one. The knee feels fine, but not quite like the other one.’’
Essentially, that’s a matter of having everything balanced and calibrated physically. Once Welker gets that, he completes an aggressive rehab process that was always aimed at keeping him from missing any regular-season time.
Things have been motoring along for some time.
Welker and Brady started throwing in late March, which helped the receiver get back into a football mind-set. By the middle of April, Welker was running routes at full speed with Brady tossing it to him, part of Guerrero’s philosophy to get his clients to “train like you play.’’
“We tried to make this a football experience for him,’’ Guerrero said.
As such, as Welker ran routes, defenders were stationed in the middle of the field, and trainers ran at him to simulate game action. The only thing they couldn’t replicate was contact.
Another more intangible but significant factor was Brady’s presence.
“To have Tommy there to see him and relate and know exactly where he was, that was important,’’ Guerrero said. “Tommy was a great guide and coach for him throughout this whole thing.’’
A big reason for Welker to come to Foxborough and take part in organized team activities and minicamp in May and June was to continue the process of reacclimating to game action. Then in mid-June, Welker returned to California, where he and Guerrero stepped up the intensity.
Everything has gone according to the script. Welker passed the team physical in his first shot and has practiced as planned. Guerrero was in Foxborough to help during the team’s spring camps, and returned July 30 in advance of Welker’s Aug. 1 return to the practice field, and everything he has seen is encouraging.
Welker took part in both practices that first day, one of two the next day, and went through his first 11-on-11 work on the third day. He has been pretty much full-go since, even enduring a collision with inside linebacker Jerod Mayo last Thursday.
The mental challenges for Welker will be a little different from those Brady faced, just as the injuries themselves have some pretty significant distinctions.
Since Brady’s injury came via contact, a big question was how he’d react to having defenders near his legs or taking a hit. Since Welker went down changing direction, his confidence in cutting on the field is most important. But that won’t be the only thing to watch.
“I’m going to look at how quickly he comes out of his breaks, how well he decelerates,’’ Guerrero said. “The deceleration and ability to come back to the ball will be important. I know what Wes has looked like leading up to this point, but practice is different than a game situation.’’
The key is that the hard part is over for Welker.
Back in March and April and May, out in California, the work was most rigorous. Welker was undergoing therapy three times a day, and working out between those sessions, lifting in the morning and doing field work in the afternoon.
All of that, it seems, is paying off now.
“I’ve been with Wes since March, and we’ve been together almost every day,’’ Guerrero said. “For us, you work hard because you expect a lot. And for me and Wes, it was expected for him to look good, because he was doing all those things.
“It’s nice that what we were looking for has happened. And now we’re looking forward.’’
To everyone else, Welker’s comeback has been remarkable. But it’s his own inability to see it that way that has made it happen.