Back To Basics: New England Patriots Can Win, Even Thrive, Without Wes Welker
By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Keg Stand Champion
Patriots prolific pass catcher Wes Welker wants big money this off-season and the big question in New England is if the organization should break the bank for him.
The short answer is no friggin' way.
Various reports are spinning out of Foxboro right now. Some say a deal is close to done. Others say that the Patriots are poised to sign Danny Amendola as Welker’s replacement.
Regardless, it’s easy to overvalue Welker when you focus on his incredible reception numbers.
Welker is a legendary slot man and the ultimate chain-mover at the receiver position. He’s potentially even a Hall of Famer.
Welker hauls in passes at a rate we’ve never seen before: a record 672 passes over the past six years with the Patriots, an unbelievable average of 112 catches per season.
It’s phenomenal stuff.
For a little perspective, Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann caught 336 passes over his entire nine-year career – that’s exactly half the 672 catches Welker has in his six seasons with the Patriots, for those of you keeping score at home.
Swann and Welker played in different eras, for sure. We realize it's a different game. But it offers some perspective on Welker's historic production. You could compare Welker to anybody, and nobody caught as many passes in six years.
Plus, in the Swann vs. Welker comparison, we’re talking a Hall of Fame nine-year career out of a stud first-round draft pick in Swann vs. six years of play by one under-sized, undrafted, previously unheralded return specialist in Welker.
But our goal here is not to compare Swann to Welker. It’s simply to show that it’s time for Welker to go, time for the Patriots to get better production out of the position ... and time for this once-proud three-time champion to shed its current well-deserved image as a paper tiger.
Here are three reasons why Welker's gotta go and why the Patriots can symbolically and literally return to championship basics by letting him walk.
1. Welker is the ultimate dink-and-dunk receiver
You’ve heard of dink-and-dunk quarterbacks, right? Well, Welker is the ultimate dink-and-dunk receiver.
We understand the job of the slot receiver is to move the chains, not provide a game-breaking downfield threat. And, it’s true, as noted above: Welker is a legendary chain mover.
But ask yourself this question: would you rather have one receiver catch 110 passes for 1200 yards, or would you rather have two receivers catch 55 passes for 650 yards each – and do it for less money?
That’s one of the statistical equations the Patriots need to make as they weigh the future of Welker with the organization and how much he is worth.
The reality is that Welker’s production is relatively humble – below average, actually – when you compare him to the rest of the NFL on a per-catch basis.
Welker has averaged 11.1 yards per catch in his career and has matched or surpassed the league average only once, with 12.9 YPC in 2011.
Here’s how Welker sized up to the league average, the team leader and the league leader in average per reception in each of his six seasons in New England.
15.2 (Randy Moss)
18.1 (Santonio Holmes)
14.6 (Randy Moss)
24.8 (Devery Henderson)
15.2 (Randy Moss)
19.4 (Mike Wallace)
14.7 (Deion Branch)
22.4 (DeSean Jackson)
14.7 (Rob Gronkowski)
19.9 (Malcolm Floyd)
14.4 (Rob Gronkowski)
19.2 (Vincent Jackson)
Put another way, in the typical season even the average wide receiver produces at a greater level per reception than Welker. And in terms of the league's elite downfield threats, he's not even in the ballpark. Hell, he's playing a different game.
If you’re doing a cost-benefit analysis, and you’re interested in diversifying your assets, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that you’re better off with two average receivers providing merely average production, especially if they’re making average money.
By the way, we mentioned earlier that Welker is quite possibly a Hall of Fame receiver. We wouldn’t argue against him one day earning a bust in Canton for his extraordinary pass-catching ability.
But in terms of getting the ball downfield, his career average per catch is well below that of even the greatest “possession receivers” currently in the Hall of Fame, including Fred Biletnikoff (15.2 YPC), Steve Largent (16.0) and Art Monk (13.5).
So Welker is a prolific dink-and-dunk receiver. But a lot of players have looked great paired with Tom Brady, and the team can certainly find somebody to fill the the role of dink-and-dunk receiver for much less money.
2. Welker doesn’t score touchdowns
The dirty little secret of Welker’s game is that he disappears around the end zone. He’s caught an average of 6.2 TDs per season in his six years with the Patriots, and never more than 9 (year by year: 8, 3, 4, 7, 9, 6).
Put another way, just one of his 18 catches ends ups in the end zone. For a little perspective, the league average last year was 1 TD for every 14 catches.
So Welker’s above-average number of receptions leads to below-average scoring production, much like it leads to a below average per catch.
Six TDs per season is hardly a reason to break the bank, no matter how many catches a guy hauls in each year.
Interestingly, Welker’s average TD reception is 14.9 yards long – much longer than his average reception. So that number tells us that he’s making touchdowns in space, at least by his standards.
But at the other end of the spectrum, you can argue he's a liability in the red zone, when there is no way to take the top off the defense with deep patterns out of his fellow receivers and less room for him to get loose underneath. His game works in the open field; not so much in the red zone.
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady has thrown an incredible 187 touchdown passes since 2007, but just 34 of those to Welker (18%).
Obviously, you can argue that Welker's work underneath opens up scoring opportuntities for other Patriots pass catcher. But you don't need to break the bank for a guy to work 8 yards down field.
3. Like all receivers, Welker is often taken out of the Big Game
Welker is fresh off the best individual postseason of his career, catching 16 passes for 248 yards and 1 TD. He averaged 16.4 YPC in New England’s win over the Texans, and 14.6 YPC in New England’s loss to the Ravens.
But they were also the first two times in Welker’s career that he averaged even 10 YPC in a postseason game.
Welker’s average playoff game looks like this, even if we include his step-up performances this past postseason:
- 7.7 catches, 76 yards, 9.9 YPC, 0.44 TDs
There was also the notable gaffe at the end of Super Bowl XLVI, when his drop quite literally cost the Patriots a Super Bowl victory.
In this respect, Welker is no different than many receivers on many great offenses. Hell, even the brilliant Jerry Rice, the greatest receiver of all time in the eyes of most, was not particulary impressive game in game out.
Rice's average playoff game looked like this:
- 5 catches, 77 yards, 15.4 YPC, 0.75 TDs
And that's Jerry F*ckin' Rice, the GOAT. We all remember those legendary playoff games. But the reality is that even Rice, like all WRs, had plenty of postseason disappearing acts.
That’s what happens to receivers and why we insist – and have proven – that WR is a low-impact position, as proven by our Shiny Hood Ornament Man Law.
Meanwhile, we proved last month, and in past years, that teams overly reliant on offense almost always fail in the big game.
The history of failures is long and deep and wide – and the Welker Era Patriots may be more guilty than any teams ever of depending too much on glitzy offens.
Four times Welker has been a key cog on some of the greatest offenses in history (2007, 2010, 2011, 2012), each of which scored more than 500 points. In fact, the Patriots are the only franchise in history to score 500 points or more four different times.
Welker, meanwhile, is the only receiver in history to play on four different teams that scored 500+ points. He led the team in receptions all four years and led the NFL in receptions in two of those seasons (2007, 2011).
Impressive stuff, once again.
Yet all four Patriots offenses disappeared in the playoffs, as we wrote about in great detail a couple weeks ago. Those four teams averaged 16.3 PPG in their playoff losses, about half their regular-season scoring average.
For all that regular-season production, it quite simply hasn't helped the Patriots reach the promised land in the playoffs. In fact, Welker and the offense have been liabilities. The team produced just 13 points in its last playoff game, the loss to the Ravens, despite Welker's exceptional yet ultimately low-impact effort (8 catches, 117 yards, 14.6 YPC, 1 TD).
Time to Return to Basics
Wes Welker was a key part of the re-branding of the Patriots in 2007, the season before which he was acquired from the Dolphins.
The Patriots went from a so-called "boring" defensive-minded club that won Super Bowls with highly efficient play on both sides of the ball to become the contemporary sexy, high-powered club that set offensive records but consistently failed to win Super Bowls.
The reality is that re-branding effort has been a failure, at least if hoisting those Lombardi Trophies is the ultimate goal.
The Patriots are simply better served spending big bucks on defenders, primarily top-level cornerbacks, such as Aqib Talib, whose impact was never more evident than it was in the AFC championship game.
The Patriots were in control against the Ravens when Talib was on the field. They spun out of control when he was injured.
The Patriots need game-breaking defenders to win Super Bowls and it's been years since they fielded one. Not so coincidentally, it's been years now (eight to be exact) since they won a Super Bowl.
Welker’s pass-catching ability, meanwhile, has been historic and perhaps makes him a Hall of Famer. We’d certainly accept his bust in the Hall of Fame. He's tough. He's multi-talented. He returns kicks. He's a team player.
He has plenty of endearing qualities. But it's often easy to fall in love with players like Welker, and it's way too easy to overvalue wide receivers, no matter how great they are.
At the end of the day, the Cold, Hard Football Fact is this: the Patriots can live without Wes Welker. They can live without scoring 500 points in a season, or even 400 points in a season.
Hell, in this day and age of high-powerd offenses that capture so many headlines, with the Patriots the poster child, five of the last six Super Bowl champs, including three straight, failed to score even 400 points.
So the Patriots can live without Welker. And perhaps they can even thrive without Welker by returning to the basics that made them a dynasty a decade ago.