There were just over four minutes left in the biggest game of the season and the Patriots were holding on to the slimmest of margins. All Tom Brady and the New England offense had to do was move the chains one more time and milk the clock to likely secure a Super Bowl XLVI win and the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl title.
But on the biggest of stages, the typically sure-handed Wes Welker mishandled what could have been the game’s clinching grab, dropping the ball and ultimately watching the Patriots entire dream scenario come crashing back to earth in the form of a 6-inch, 4.4-ounce leather football.
While Patriots’ nation copes with the epic loss, Bill Belichick and the front office have some decisions to make as they plan the future of the franchise, including what to do with the ever-productive Welker.
Since coming over from the division-rival Miami Dolphins in a 2007 predraft trade, Welker has been the epitome of consistency for the Patriots and has become Brady’s trusty target in tight situations — like the one Sunday night.
Welker has produced at an All-Pro level in four of his five seasons in Foxboro, catching over 100 passes and amassing more than 1,100 in every season except 2010, when he caught just 86 balls for 848 yards. The four-time Pro Bowler has led the NFL in catches in three of those seasons (2007, 2009, 2011) including this year, when Welker hauled in a league-high 122 passes and finished second to only Detroit’s Calvin Johnson with 1,569 yards receiving.
To say that the 5-foot-9, 185-pound Welker has been anything but essential to the Patriots success over the past five seasons would be damn near ludicrous, but to think that the franchise might be better off without him in their future isn’t quite as crazy a thought.
Welker just finished the final season of a five-year deal he signed with New England in 2007. Throughout the course of this season there were constant discussions around the NFL as to not if, but when the Patriots would ink the eight-year veteran to a new contract. Yet the deal never came and conversations quickly shifted to how the tight-walleted franchise would go about re-signing their star receiver.
Well, maybe they shouldn’t.
Following an all-star season like Welker put together in 2011, many around the league would consider the Patriots crazy for not giving the man the dollars he deserves. But as just about every football fan has come to realize, Belichick isn’t one to play by the rules of the status quo. He’s a thinker and a projector. He wants guys not for what they’ve done but because of what they will do. Guys who not only can produce but those who can produce in big time situations — something Welker all but proved he was incapable of on Sunday night.
Granted, Welker was no slouch in the game, as he did reel in six passes for 70 yards in the game, but it was the key drop that stands out and that many fans consider to have cost New England in the end. A sin that is not quite as unforgivable as Bill Buckner‘s gaffe in the 1986 World Series, but one that stings even worse when coupled with the Patriots’ collapse to these same Giants in Super Bowl XLII.
The error alone may not be enough to force the dependable receiver out of town, but as Welker sits on the wrong side of 30 (he turns 31 in May) with likely his best playing days behind him, it might be time for Belichick to take his offense in another direction — one that doesn’t quite hold Welker in it’s future.
The type of contract Welker will be looking for in the offseason may not merit a legitimate offer from the Patriots, unless he’s willing to offer owner Bob Kraft a significant hometown discount for his services, which is not likely.
Welker is likely to seek the type of money Santonio Holmes saw from the New York Jets last season, somewhere in the five-year and $50 million range with $24 million guaranteed. Those sorts of numbers don’t usually sit well with the Patriots’ cap-savvy approach and even the somewhat friendlier franchise tag number of somewhere around $9.5 million might be too rich for Kraft’s blood.
The contract situation becomes even more hairy when management starts to consider the fast approaching deals of some other big-name talent. Tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez are the future of the franchise and both should be due for hefty raises on their next contracts. The pair won’t hit the free-agent market until after the 2013 season but they may command a lot more dough if they aren’t locked down soon.
As for a replacement, if Welker does find his way out of town, Gronk and Hernandez already fill up the seam pretty well and some added work for Julian Edelman in the slot could definitely help ease the transition period.
Meanwhile, Belichick needs to find a long-term solution on the outside. The team needs a deep threat and with Brady likely on the last sturdy legs of his illustrious career, it’s now or never for the Patriots to put together another Super Bowl caliber squad and make a run at sports’ ultimate prize.
Looking for a receiver in the draft is certainly an option. Justin Blackmon (Oklahoma State) and Kendall Wright (Baylor) are a couple of options. But an even better opportunity may present itself via free agency where younger, more explosive receivers could be available. Names like Mike Wallace (restricted), Dwayne Bowe, Vincent Jackson and even Marques Colston immediately jump off the page. All four of those guys are still under 30 years old and have the ability to return the dynamic offense of the Brady-to-Moss years back to Foxboro.
The sad fact is that this offensive system has given a solid go of it over the past four seasons, and while the regular season statistics have been stellar, the postseason production has come up short.
It appears to be time for a changing of the guard for New England’s offense. Bill O’Brien is headed to Happy Valley to coach Penn State and the easily excitable Josh McDaniels returns for another go-around with the Patriots’ offense. With McDaniels returns the same high flying attack we saw during the near-undefeated run in 2007.
Although Welker was a vital part of that upfield attack, it seems that this time around the team may be better off moving in a different direction.
Welker’s value to the Patriots organization is immeasurable and his play-making ability ranks him near the top of the league, but is a diminutive 31-year-old receiver with a knee replacement really worth $50 million over the next five years? It’s a hard sell to start with and an even harder one when one considers that drop.