Wes Welker Treatment Raises Questions of Patriots’ Direction, Whether Tom Brady Is Next

Wes Welker Treatment Raises Questions of Patriots' Direction, Whether Tom Brady Is NextCatch the Patriots taping opposing team's signals on the sidelines? Yawn. Watch Wes Welker seemingly get shunned from the Patriots' offense after an offseason contract situation in which he was nothing but the good soldier? Now you've got the attention of New England fans.

Patriots supporters are waiting to see whether Aaron Hernandez's ankle is hurt badly and wondering still how Stephen Gostkowski missed a field goal at the end of Sunday's 20-18 loss to the Cardinals.

But the real question around New England now is why the team seems to be jerking Welker's chain.

Welker's first, low-producing game could be seen as an aberration. Some days players just don't catch as many passes, and Week 1's three-reception, 14-yard outing was scary but not suspicious.

On Sunday, though, when Welker had five receptions for 95 yards — but only after coming off the bench when Hernandez was injured, seeing more passes go to Julian Edelman, and having to line up not in his usual slot position but rather play second fiddle to whoever else was on the field — the picture has changed.

This is not just Welker not getting the ball. This is high school-caliber snobbery, and Patriots fans have every reason to start gritting their teeth at the coaching staff for how this situation appears to be going down. Today it's Welker, but the decisions made so far this season seem to be sending a new message throughout New England — one that could even endanger such key parts of the Patriot Way as Tom Brady himself.

As speculation continues that Welker is being phased out of the team's offense, the main idea seems to be that the New England coaches must be unhappy with Welker in some way. Maybe he did something off the field that irritated them, or maybe — God forbid — his fighting for a better long-term deal in the offseason has them rankled. (Welker is making plenty this season under the franchise tag, but he did turn down an offer from the team earlier this year because he reportedly wants a deal with more years after racking up record yards on a pittance of a salary for the past five seasons with the Patriots.)

The other, cold-hearted line of reasoning is that Edelman is young and still cheap, and the Welker clone could do for the next few years what Welker has already done. The team could be paying Welker one last time under the franchise tag this year before shifting gears toward Edelman and letting Welker go.

No one, of course, knows what is really happening, as is the norm in Patriots land. Coach Bill Belichick will talk game plans, quarterback and Welker buddy Brady will be the diplomatic leader, and Welker — as always — will be a team player.

But whatever is happening in the situation, the speculation is unsettling. Welker getting less snaps can't be for the same reasons the Patriots have shunned players before. Lawyer Milloy was causing problems. Randy Moss tipped the scales toward trouble, outweighing his usefulness. Chad Johnson had promise and the team ethos but was just plain dumb.

Welker seems to fulfill all the requirements of a good Patriot, from carrying the load to playing for a low salary to saying all the right things. For his one sin at this point to be that he's trying to get the value back that's accrued in his on-field play — and that the Patriots just can't afford him — seems so wrong and so not like New England. Even if there isn't a high school-like tit-for-tat going on between the team and Welker in this situation, and the Patriots are just trying to whisk him away for cap space, it's alarming.

This is the team that isn't supposed to be frozen at the core, as critics have suggested for years. This is the team that played for Robert Kraft's late wife. This is the team that gave youngsters Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez good-faith contracts rather than stringing them out.

But now, this appears to be the team that has asked for perfection from a receiver that has made the Pats look just as good as they've made him. He appears to have come up short in some way, even if it's just outlasting his relative usefulness, and now he will end up going.

It's just part of the game. Shrug. He didn't fit in with what was best for the team. Frown. Wes is a great player, but we thought it was better for the organization to go in a different direction. Silence.

It's all speculation now, but these are scary colors coming out of Gillette. If a player like Welker, who has done so much on and off the field for the team, can be kicked to the curb, who's next?

Brady wants to play until he's 40. In what year between now and then does Belichick purse his lips and say Brady just wasn't a good fit for the team anymore? Will he be sent off quietly into the night?

"In Bill We Trust" is a fine mantra when the wins come, or when the team puts together admirable stretches, like last year's Super Bowl run (that team had no business getting to the title game). But when Belichick makes moves that are so strictly business, with no thought to the guts and soul of teams, a queasiness sets in.

Belichick has been able to get the players he's wanted before and keep building. But spurning a player who has been nothing but good to the organization sends a horrible message to fans and the team — even if it's not true.

If Welker is not in the doghouse, the Patriots should make it clear. If not, it's going to be a rough season, and one that sets an ugly precedent as Welker hangs in limbo and Brady keeps playing, each game one step closer to the twilight of his career.

After an offseason when New England seemed to be setting a great tone for what the organization would be, the unsettled start to the year has many wondering whether Belichick is going to fulfill the critics' views of him as nothing but a heartless win-seeker.

It starts with Welker. It could end with Brady.

But it shouldn't have to get to either.

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