The Patriots should have learned this with Deion Branch, with Ty Law, with all the veteran, Patriot Way talent that has left for more money and been replaced by shadows of players. But it is 2013, and rent-a-Welker’s time in New England appears to be ending quickly because — well, because Amendola is younger, and cheaper, and doesn’t have a history with the team that would lead to him asking for a fair share of pay.
If it wasn’t Amendola, it would be somebody else. Perhaps Julian Edelman from within, or a wide receiver from a scrap heap elsewhere. The main point is that the Patriots don’t reward veteran players with long-term contracts if those players aren’t going to produce their money’s worth in the coming years. So Welker, who was a salary cap miracle man for the Patriots for so many seasons, will not be getting a good faith contract that could possibly pay him above what he’s worth in return for his years of service.
The Patriots have toyed with Welker before, dangling a deal and then using the franchise tag. This year was supposed to be the year that it finally happened, with Tom Brady making the way for the Patriots to splurge a little on a veteran. But Welker will be 32 going into next season. Amendola will be 27. Welker has played six years with the Patriots, but they were all years with blind smashes over the middle, endless hits and a few dropped passes. Amendola, after four years in the league, is ready to start racking up the same track record — at about the same age Welker was when he first came to New England.
It’s business, regular old business, for the Patriots, the kind of business that makes people wonder whether anyone can be spared when the all-seeing eye of New England’s salary cap preservation starts moving. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Welker can still be a good option for the Patriots, even with his salary demands and age, and the Patriots can still be a good home for Welker, even with all the hard feelings. It starts, though, with both sides taking a step back.
Objectively, it makes sense that the Patriots would be wary to spend a lot on Welker, and it makes sense that they’d want to wait to give him a contract until they figure out what else they can do in free agency. Also objectively, for Welker, it makes sense that being strung along — and getting what could be seen as little respect from offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels — would take this from being just another contract negotiation to feeling like the 600th replay of the same fight in a dissolving marriage.
But the key factors here are not feelings, money or timing. The bottom line here is whether the Patriots want Welker, and whether Welker wants them back. Settle that, and the rest of the murmurings really shouldn’t have trouble falling into place.
This has all gone awry because the Patriots don’t seem to have their minds made up. If they’re going to be cold-hearted and let Welker go, they should have let him go. Instead, they’ve pulled him along for a couple of years, hoping that a veteran player who knows his value to the team would stop asking to be paid well — or would just go away.
If the Patriots want to keep Welker, money needs to stop being such an issue. Just as they decided with Brady, a once-in-a-generation player, sometimes a little extra money goes a long way in cutting out other concerns (like what happens when a couple of tight ends get injured). Welker is not of Brady’s importance to the team, but New England is not ready to go with the mess that happened when veterans like Branch and Law left, leaving holes that remained unfilled — and detracted from the rest of the team — for several years. In that regard, giving Welker a little extra money and not trying to reinvent the offense with a new receiver doesn’t seem like too much to ask. If Welker is vital to the team, as most people think, the Patriots need to keep him. Otherwise, they need to stop playing around.
Sure, the Patriots would like to see what they can get in free agency — and maybe they’d even like to see if another team will make their Welker decision for them. But New England didn’t get to its championship levels before with halfhearted personnel decisions. The Patriots are known to move with conviction and keep players who have value, and what’s happened with Welker is precisely the kind of distraction and precedent the team needs to avoid.
When it comes to Welker, though, there’s room to give, too. The Patriots may have been less than exemplary, but Welker isn’t going to get the same support and opportunities anywhere else that he’s had in New England. Furthermore, pushing the Patriots — testing free agency, giving it some time, needling for more money — is not the brightest idea when it comes to a team that takes pride in squashing sentimentality and pushing the bottom line. Calling the Patriots cheap is not going to get a better contract.
It could all be smoke and mirrors now, this hedging and Amendola-luring and such. But it could also escalate, as these contract situations tend to do when feelings get involved. (Ray Allen, anyone?) The posturing and waiting is supposed to get both sides closer together, and to get the results that neither the Patriots nor Welker have been able to get in their many attempts at a new deal. Instead, what once seemed to be a small matter — a wedge driving the two sides apart — has become a real storyline.
At this point, though, it’s not about Amendola or anybody else. If the Patriots want to get a deal with Welker done, they need to just get it done. Letting this go to free agency is not going to help anything.
This is not about money, and it’s not about pride. It’s about the Patriots building on what they have, and staying at a level that can take them back the Super Bowl. If that involves Welker, there’s no reason to involve anything else.