Wes Welker: The Biggest Impact Pass Catcher in NFL History
Game-breaking pass catchers are supposed to be big, rangy downfield threats who open up the offense underneath. Wes Welker possesses none of those qualities; in fact, he's just the opposite. But he's easily the greatest game-breaking pass catcher in NFL history.
By Kerry J. Byrne
Cold, Hard Football Facts Shallow Threat (@footballfacts)
The Denver Broncos offense made it look easy again in a 45-21 Week 8 victory over the Washington Redskins Sunday, capped by a 31-point fourth-quarter explosion that broke open a 14-14 tie.
Peyton Manning threw three scores in the final stanza, while cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie punctuated the game with a 75-yard INT return for a touchdown.
Denver’s superstar newcomer Wes Welker caught 6 passes for 81 yards and a score. He leads the NFL’s best offense with 50 catches and 9 TDs at the halfway pole. That puts him on pace for a tidy 100 catches and career-best 18 TD receptions.
The pint-sized slot man also leads NFL history for the title of Biggest Impact Wide Receiver of All Time.
Where little Wes Welker goes, big things happen.
His incredible impact on the offensive fortunes of two different franchises refutes everything the "pundits" tell us is important about attacking defenses, and about the receiver position in particular.
On a day when Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson generated all the headlines with 14 catches for 329 yards (7 yards shy of Flipper Anderson's single-game record), it was Welker’s team that chugs along as perhaps the most unstoppable force in NFL history.
We’ve seen this story before, of course, over the past several years in New England.
Consider this: the teams fielding Welker at wide receiver have now scored exactly 900 points since the start of the 2012 season, a period of 24 games for two different franchises. You can take any two teams over any 24-game period in NFL history, and they’ve never scored 900 points.
Welker is the common thread between the two teams who have combined for that incredible feat of scoring-do.
The Race for 700 Points
Denver has now scored 343 points in just eight games. You don’t need Peyton Manning’s computer-like ability to process information to realize that 343 points in eight games puts the Broncos on pace to score 686 points in a season – which would shatter the current single-season record by nearly 100 points (589 points by Welker and the 2007 Patriots).
The Broncos are likely to become the first 600-point offense in NFL history, could challenge the unimaginable number of 700 points scored (though a tougher second-half schedule will likely prevent it), and have a reasonable shot to become the first offense in NFL history to average 40+ points per game.
Here’s a look at how the Broncos size up against the highest-scoring offenses in NFL history, based upon points per game:
- 2013 Broncos (7-1) – 343 points; 42.9 PPG (Welker team)
- 1950 L.A. Rams (9-3) – 466 points; 38.8 PPG
- 2007 Patriots (16-0) – 589 points; 36.8 PPG (Welker team)
- 1961 Oilers (10-3-1) – 513 points; 36.6 PPG
- 1941 Bears (10-1) – 396 points; 36.0 PPG
- 2011 Packers (15-1) – 560 points; 35.0 PPG
- 2012 Patriots (12-4) – 557 points; 34.8 PPG (Welker team)
You might notice that three of the seven highest scoring teams in NFL history had one player in common: Wes Welker.
He joined the Patriots in 2007 (along with Randy Moss) and the team immediately set the record for most points scored in a season (second most points per game) and became the only 16-0 team in NFL history.
Welker joined the Broncos here in 2013 and his new team is likely to set new records for both points scored in a season and points scored per game.
Superstar wideout Moss left the Patriots four games through the 2010 season. But the New England offense remained a largely unstoppable force even without the legendarily gifted pass catcher.
In fact, here’s a look at the highest scoring teams in NFL history, based upon total points in a season.
- 2013 Broncos – 686 (projected) – Welker team
- 2007 Patriots – 589 – Welker team
- 2011 Packers – 560
- 2012 Patriots – 557 – Welker team
- 1998 Vikings – 556
- 2011 Saints – 547
- 1983 Redskins – 541
- 2000 Rams – 540
- 1999 Rams – 526
- 2004 Colts – 522
- 2010 Patriots – 518 – Welker team
- 1961 Oilers – 513
- 1984 Dolphins – 513
- 2011 Patriots – 513 – Welker team
By the end of the year, Welker will likely enter the the history books as the leading pass catcher on:
- the two most prolific offenses in NFL history
- three of the four most prolific offenses in NFL history
- 5 of the 14 most prolific offenses in NFL history
The Patriots are the only franchise in NFL history to top 500 points scored in four different seasons. Welker led all four of those teams in receptions, much like he leads the Broncos in receptions this year.
In fact, Welker and Tom Brady are the only players in NFL history to be starters on offenses that scored 500+ points in a season four different times.
By the end of the year, Welker will be the only performer on five different offenses to score 500+ points.
The Wes Welker Impact
We’ve long pioneered the Shiny Hood Ornament Man Law, which tells us that wide receiver is the most overvalued position in football, and maybe in all of North American sports.
Welker appears to be one of the few exceptions, and certainly the most empirically historic exception to this irrefutable law of football. There’s no proof that he made New England a dominant offense from 2007 to 2012, much like there is no proof that he’s the difference for Denver this season.
But the coincidence of his arrival with an explosion in points for two different franchises is certainly more than dramatic and more than coincidental.
Consider that the Denver offense looks largely as it did in 2012 in terms of personnel.
Peyton Manning is still the quarterback. Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker are still the leading wideouts (Welker is currently No. 3 in terms of receiving yards, even though he leads the team in catches). The Broncos went younger at running back, replacing Willis McGahee with Montee Ball. But Ball has offered only a marginal impact (54 carries, 176 yards, 1 TD).
The big change, of course, was in the slot, with the addition of Wes Welker to replace Brandon Stokley.
The difference in production for the 2013 Broncos, who otherwise look largely like they did in 2012, is stunning.
- The 2012 Broncos scored 30.1 PPG
- The 2013 Broncos score 42.9 PPG
Denver’s production has improved by nearly two touchdowns per game (12.8 PPG), with Welker the only major difference on the team.
New England went through a similar improvement in 2007, the year it acquired Welker (and Moss).
- The 2006 Patriots scored 24.1 PPG
- The 2007 Patriots scored 36.8 PPG
Once again and improvement in scoring with the arrival of Welker was nearly two touchdowns per game (12.7 PPG).
The 2013 Broncos Lapping the Field
Some corners of football analysis offer a common response to the recent historic production of teams like the 2007-2012 Patriots or the 2013 Broncos: they simply point out that it’s easier than ever to move the ball, thanks largely to the legistlative efforts by the NFL to handcuff defenses.
This may be true. But it’s not necessarily easier than ever to score points. Back in the day, when defenses were given a fighting chance, they produced more defensive scores and more turnovers to give offenses short fields.
The NFL league-wide scoring average this year is 23.2 points per team per game. It’s very high. But not the highest in history. That honor still belongs to the 1948 season, when NFL teams averaged 23.6 PPG.
Remove the Broncos, and NFL teams this year average just 22.5 PPG, lower than the league average in 1948, 1965, 1950, 2012, 1949 and 1958.
The bigger reality is that it's not easier than ever for everybody to score points in the NFL. The reality is that there's massive gap between the NFL's haves with elite QBs and the NFL's have-nots with third-rate QBs.
The reality is that there is a huge disparity between the production of the Broncos this year and the rest of the league, much like there was habitually a huge disparity between Welker’s Patriots and the rest of the league in recent years. Consider this year:
- Denver scores a league-best 42.9 PPG
- The distant-second-ranked Bears score 30.4 PPG
- Eight NFL teams, a quarter of the league, score fewer than 20.0 PPG this year
- Eleven NFL teams score fewer than half as many PPG as Welker’s Broncos
- The Jaguars average just 10.8 PPG, about 5 TDs per game fewer than the Broncos
We saw a very similar but less dramatic situation with the Patriots last year:
- New England scored a league best 34.8 PPG
- The second-ranked Broncos scored 30.1 PPG
- Only two teams (Denver, New Orleans) were within 100 points of the Patriots total (557).
- Three NFL teams scored fewer than half as many PPG as Welker’s Patriots
- The Chiefs averaged just 13.2 PPG, about 3 TDs per game fewer than the Patriots
In other words, as we noted earlier this year, the rising statistical tide of the modern NFL is not lifting all boats. Instead, the current state of the NFL handsomely rewards those teams that field great quarterbacks and makes of miserable mockery of the teams struggling to find a legit NFL-caliber signal caller.
The rich get richer, in other words, and the poor scramble for statistical morsels.
The great quarterbacks make it happen – Manning, Brady, Brees, Rodgers, etc. And the greatest quarterbacks, Manning and Brady, make it happen at historic levels when paired with Wes Welker, the Biggest Impact Wide Receiver of All Time.
They've easily out-distanced the competition nearly every season since the receiver exploded onto the scene in 2007, after being rescued from the obscurity of Miami, where had suffered the misfortune of being paired with famous bust Joey Harrington in 2006.
Welker Makes Mockery of Conventional Wisdom
There is a certain irony, of course, to Welker’s profound and historic statistical impact on the wider team. Most notably, his impact is a rejection of everything the pigskin “pundits” tell us is important about the receiver position.
The conventional wisdom is that the great wide receivers are those big rangy guys with blazing speed on the outside who can “open up” an offense underneath and "take the top off a defense" with their “downfield threat” capabilities.
Year after year, coaches, GMs and owners drool over the potential "game-breaking" wide receiver, and dish out big bucks and high picks to land them in free agency or the draft, even as these players habitually fail to provide the expected impact (the foundation of the Shiny Hood Ornament Man Law).
Welker meets none of those impact-player criteria.
He’s not big or rangy, just 5-9, 190 pounds. He’s certainly quick but has never been a downfield threat by any measure.
He works underneath in a manner never seen before: catching more passes in a shorter period than any receiver in history, but also producing one of the lowest averages per reception of any player in history. In fact, 94 wide receivers have caught 500+ passes in their NFL careers.
Welker's career average of 11.2 yards per reception is the lowest among all of them. He's the exact opposite of a downfield threat.
But all those small underneath catches have had a massive impact on the ability of his teams to consistently put up points at a rate never seen before in NFL history.
All of which makes little Wes Welker the Biggest Impact Wide Receiver of All Time.
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