For the world of Patriots fans hoping to find a definitive assessment of whether it was foresight or foolhardy to let Wes Welker go last offseason, Thursday night was an obnoxious affair.
First he was good, getting the one-on-one separation that makes his name often go along with the adjective “shifty.” Then he dropped a pass, incurring Gisele Bundchen mentions from all corners. Next, it was another catch and some sweating, as New England rooters checked Danny Amendola‘s injury status.
Those were just precursors to the big moments, though. When Welker blew the catch on a punt in the second quarter — inside the five-yard line, and setting up a Ravens touchdown — his fate appeared to be sealed. It was a bad play from every angle, and it seemed to confirm that for all Welker brings, he’s trending more toward mistakes and ineffectiveness.
But the pendulum swung back again. Welker finished the night with nine catches for 67 yards and two of Peyton Manning‘s record-tying seven touchdowns. While Manning spread the ball, Welker’s grabs came at the most pivotal time of scoring — just as Denver was finally getting separation from Baltimore after a back-and-forth first half. The Broncos led 21-17 before Manning-to-Welker 1.0 and 2.0, and they were up 35-17 after.
Seeing Welker play so well — and with Manning, of course — is stomach-turning for plenty of New England fans. Many are still upset not only that the Patriots let Welker go, but also with how coach Bill Belichick seemed to chuck him out the door so he’d take Denver’s pittance of an offer. The biggest concern, however, continues to be that Welker, who was so often Tom Brady‘s safety valve and the Patriots’ steadiest contributor in an often-changing wide receiver group in New England, will latch on in Denver and make magic with Manning while the Patriots suffer.
That conclusion could be drawn from Thursday night’s game. Manning and Welker certainly have chemistry. But the Patriots haven’t played yet this week, to see whether Brady could perhaps have chemistry with his new receivers as well. It’s also Week 1. One game. A gasping defense. A Hall of Fame quarterback throwing to a proven receiver. A handful of plays that do not make up a year.
Conclusions on whether the Welker decision was good or bad can’t be drawn in one game or perhaps even one season — and they shouldn’t be, at least unless someone is looking for unnecessary stress. The question of whether it was a bad idea to let Welker go is not one of fantasy value or even regular-season records. When Belichick made that call, even if he did it in a dirtbag way, he was doing it for more than winning a Twitter war on a Thursday night in September.
Belichick’s decision to move on from Welker was typical of how Belichick has run the Patriots for some time. He chose a younger player who could perhaps be more versatile over the proven, loved veteran. He cleaned out a comfortable receiving corps, opting to bring in a lot of fresh blood instead (and, well, Aaron Hernandez expedited that process). He looked long-term and found players who he thinks can help the team make it happen in the playoffs, not ones who will put up great regular seasons.
That is not a dig against Welker for his drops, which are really neither here nor there against the light of his career production. But it is an acknowledgement that, for as good as Welker was, the Patriots were ineffective in the playoffs in the years that Welker was their main contributor. Welker wasn’t stealing the spotlight or hurting the team, but the fact that the Patriots had to continue to lean on him shows that the rest of the team was not set up for optimal success.
That’s what makes it sort of funny that Welker is now playing with Manning, whose playoff cliff notes can be recited by any New England fan. In Brady vs. Manning, it’s always been Super Bowl wins vs. regular-season record, playoff victories vs. league MVPs, established team success vs. perhaps the best quarterback of his generation. Whether much of that is myth or not, the Patriots have always cared about winning in the playoffs more than any record or records they can put together in the regular season. Them giving up a proven regular-season contributor so that Manning can pad his numbers while the Pats instead pine for long-term playoff success fits the narrative, no matter how flawed it is.
(That Manning was lauded for winning in the regular season Thursday, beating the team that kept him from advancing in last year’s playoffs, also fits the narrative.)
If the Broncos punch through in the playoffs, riding a suddenly sticky-handed Welker, perhaps then Patriots fans can draw conclusions. They can say Belichick should have kept the one sure piece. They can moan that Brady’s window is shutting.
But if Brady can make the most of his new, young receivers — who could also provide an advantage in not bringing in baggage — then Belichick will have had the last laugh again.
And as everyone knows, Belichick does love to laugh.
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