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Risk and reward

Cutting across the middle, Welker is fearless, peerless

Wes Welker’s daring play has him on a record-setting pace this season. Wes Welker’s daring play has him on a record-setting pace this season. (John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)
By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / November 13, 2011

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Something has to be missing from the complex wiring of the brain to be a receiver who enjoys going across the middle.

The football equivalent of running into traffic can lead to some of the most jarring collisions, and Patriots receiver Wes Welker has been on the receiving end of more than a few.

Growing up, Welker acknowledges, he was a bit of a daredevil, and in many ways that hasn’t changed.

“I don’t think that feeling ever really leaves you,’’ Welker said. “I enjoy it and try to put myself in a different type of mind-set, especially when I’m out there on the field. I do think you have to be a little bit crazy and kind of have the attitude of let’s go out there and do this and not really worry about the ramifications of your body sometimes.’’

Welker is Tom Brady’s primary target. With 66 receptions for 960 yards through eight games, he is on pace to eclipse Jerry Rice’s NFL record for receiving yards (1,848) and finish just shy of Marvin Harrison’s NFL-record 143 receptions.

With the New England offense motored by the passing game, opponents are trying to make Welker’s time on the field physically miserable, and that isn’t likely to change tonight against the Jets.

“I think people are starting to notice that if you bang him around, his timing gets knocked off a little bit, and you add pressure to Brady also,’’ said Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie.

Hazards of job

There are downsides to being a slot receiver, and the pounding week after week tops the list, but it is part of the job, said former Jets receiver Wayne Chrebet. After 11 NFL seasons, Chrebet was forced to retire after suffering a serious concussion in 2005.

But what he loved about being a slot receiver was the contact and the adrenaline rush of trying to snag a pass over the middle and get up field without being caught.

“I think you need a different kind of personality,’’ Chrebet said. “I’m not saying it’s a huge difference from other players but you have to have a screw loose a little bit to go over the middle. I think Wes is like me in that you enjoy it.’’

But Chrebet added, “It’s not great for career longevity.’’

Welker is feeling the effects of increased attention week after week. Against the Steelers, safety Troy Polamalu tackled Welker by grabbing the receiver’s helmet and twisting his head. The play didn’t result in a flag or a fine for Polamalu, but Welker was left with a neck injury.

Seven days later, Welker was back on the field against the Giants. This time, he was clobbered by a hit he later said knocked the wind out of him. The past week, he has been limited at practice with a rib injury.

“It’s a physical game, so it’s the way it’s supposed to be played,’’ Welker said. “You’ve got to be ready for it and make sure you’re being physical out there and playing the way you need to.’’

Preparation for a game means Welker must treat his body delicately during the week. He is a regular for a series of treatments and massages to help his body heal.

“I think it all depends on the player and knowing that I want to play for a really long time and I want to be out there every Sunday,’’ Welker said. “In order to do that, you have to put in the time, get the massages, the eating right, the conditioning yourself, the weight training, and doing different things necessary to make sure you’re ready to go on Sunday.’’

Maintenance is critical, considering the impact a game can have on a player’s body. Welker, who is 5 feet 9 inches and 185 pounds, doesn’t match up in terms of size with the average defender and, as a result, he is subjected to tackles that can generate anywhere from 2,000 to 4,000 pounds of force, said John Brenkus, host of ESPN’s “Sport Science.’’

The collisions can be considered the equivalent of 35-mile-per-hour car accidents, Brenkus said. The pads absorb 50 percent of the impact, and players are trained to take hits in a way that minimizes impact.

Despite that, players don’t come out of games unscathed, and a player like Welker may feel the effects a little more than others, according to Ralph Reiff, director and athletic trainer at St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis.

“It may have a little more effect on him than someone with a bigger body mass,’’ said Reiff, who has not treated Welker. “There’s this physiological or biologic process that occurs when you’re repeatedly traumatized as your body gets repeatedly thrown to the ground, hit, and all the various effects of playing the game of football.’’

Throughout a game, a player’s ligaments and muscles are in a constant state of flexing and moving after jarring hits, causing micro trauma that results in inflammation that can last up to three days, Reiff said.

“So think about that - from Sunday, you’ve got Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday before that inflammatory process starts to slow down and you feel a little bit normal, yet that process still happens as you’re going through practice,’’ Reiff said. “And that’s quite honestly why some players get a pass for practice and don’t get hit during the week, because their body handles that inflammatory process not as good as others.’’

Tolerating pain

The body can develop tolerance for pain and become desensitized to a low-level soreness, but the process of recovery doesn’t change, Reiff said.

“The weekend warrior will go out, rake leaves, clean out the garage, play some flag football, and they’ll be sore for three or four days and it’s ‘Oh my gosh, I can hardly get in and out of the car,’ ’’ Reiff said.

“You take a player in the National Football League and that’s the way they might feel the first three days of training camp back in August. But then your body adapts.

“Your neurologic system adapts to that, but your biological system does not adapt. You cannot change that inflammatory response process.

“That’s why players in the National Football League have access or seek out all these various remedies to help get them through that biologic process. That might be ice packs, cold tanks, massages, supplements, acupuncture, chiropractic care, stretching, or hyperbaric chambers.

“There’s just a lot of different remedies that quite frankly all work and are all pieces of the puzzle, but they’re all there in place to help a guy like Wes Welker get ready for the next Sunday.’’

While a big hit may be turned into a highlight, it is not always the jarring tackle that can lead to injuries. Chrebet said he learned how to take care of his body and realized there were other elements of the game that could take their toll.

“It’s not just catching the ball over the middle - it’s lining up and blocking linebackers or safeties,’’ Chrebet said. “It doesn’t stop with the plays when you get the ball in your hands. It’s a different type of guy to do that game after game.’’

And the physical aspect is not always a negative, Chrebet said.

“I was destined to be a slot receiver from when I was a kid,’’ he said. “I enjoyed the contact, I sought it out. Not to be weird or twisted, but it just made me feel alive out there. I didn’t feel good when I wasn’t hitting anybody or getting hit.’’

No time to think

Receivers who go across the middle must forget about the potential of getting hit and look for the ball, which presents another challenge. Brenkus has been a part of more than 350 tests with world-class athletes and many of them have examined football.

“I marvel at the physics of the game in that the margin of error is so incredibly slim,’’ Brenkus said. “The average quarterback release time is .4 seconds, just the amount of time to blink an eye.

“The receiver has to be fearless and incredibly confident that the quarterback is not going to hang him out to dry.

“One of the things about going across the middle is that the quarterback is being obstructed depending on how far away you are. A quarterback can throw a ball 60 m.p.h., and at that speed, you don’t see it until it’s about 5 or 10 yards away. The reaction time is so low. It’s like trying to hit a fastball at more than 100 m.p.h.’’

Mastering those challenges is what has helped Welker become an elite receiver.

Welker was slowed against Dallas and Pittsburgh, but against the Giants last week, he caught nine passes for 136 yards. The last time the Patriots played the Jets, Welker had five catches for 124 yards and that was while under the watch of standout Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis.

The Jets plan to continue being physical with Welker, because if he has room, he can burn a defense.

“If you don’t put hands on him, it’s pretty obvious what he can do,’’ Jets linebacker Aaron Maybin said. “He can blow the lid off a defense.

“He’s the kind of guy that he’s so hard to tackle in space and he creates so many matchup problems for safeties and linebackers that it’s important that you get your guys to get hands on him and try to throw him off his routes because a lot of their routes do depend on timing.’’

And if the Jets play physical, Welker will be ready.

“I think we’ve had a lot of physical matchups over the years where different things happen,’’ Welker said. “I kind of know the way it’s going to be played and what to expect and hopefully the referees do, too.’’

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