So much for Wes Welker’s disappearing act.
For the Patriots first two games, his playing time mysteriously dropped. In the three weeks since then, he’s been on the field for more snaps than any other wide receiver in the NFL.
His comedy routine didn’t last long either — just a one-night stand.
The New England star backtracked about 12 hours after saying on Comcast Sportsnet, with a wink and a smile, that he enjoyed catching 13 passes against Denver last Sunday to “stick it” in coach Bill Belichick’s face.
“It was a joke,” he insisted on Monday, trying to defuse the issue before the team began preparing for Sunday’s game at the Seattle Seahawks. “I’ll make sure to keep that in-house going forward.”
Now Welker is back where he’s been for most of his career with the Patriots, at centre stage of one of the league’s most dangerous passing attacks.
“The dude is fast,” Broncos linebacker Joe Mays said after the Patriots’ 31-21 win. “He is definitely one of the best slot men in the game, if not the best. What can I say? The dude definitely made plays and we didn’t.”
Injuries that have sidelined tight end Aaron Hernandez for three games and wide receiver Julian Edelman for two gave Welker a shot at increased playing time. Would it have gone up anyway? Tough to say, but Hernandez ran hard during practice on Wednesday and could be back against the Seahawks.
Belichick has seen improvement in Edelman and might want to give him more experience knowing that Welker could be gone once his contract expires after this season.
Whatever his reasons, Belichick hasn’t said why Welker played only 70.5 per cent of the offensive snaps in the first two games. Since then, he’s played 91.1 per cent, sitting out just 23 of 257 offensive plays, bringing his total to 83.5 per cent for the season.
Welker has had 49 passes thrown his way, tied for seventh among wide receivers and just eight behind leader Reggie Wayne of the Indianapolis Colts.
The 5-foot-9 speedster may be as dangerous as ever, catching short passes over the middle and swerving around bigger defenders for extra yardage.
Welker led the NFL with 122 receptions last season and with 554 since joining the Patriots in 2007. Despite a slow start this year, he’s tied for second with 38 catches. He has 30 in his last three games, gaining more than 100 yards in each of them.
Against Denver, he scored the first touchdown of the game on an 8-yard pass from Tom Brady and did his usual solid job blocking for other receivers.
“The guy’s a true professional in every sense of the word in how he prepares. He plays the game the right way. He practices the right way. And he takes care of his body the right way. He just does so many things the right way and the guys around here really appreciate and respect him for that,” said wide receiver Matthew Slater
That dedication showed after the 2009 season when he worked diligently at recovering from torn knee ligaments suffered in the last regular season game. He was back in time for the next season. Although he had just 86 catches, the fewest in his five full seasons with the Patriots, he played in 15 games while working to get back to full speed.
Last year he posted career highs of 1,569 yards receiving and nine touchdowns.
But Welker had another uncertain off-season this year. He and the Patriots couldn’t reach agreement on a long-term contract, which might have left him with a bitter taste. He accepted the team’s franchise tag and the $9.5 million salary that goes with it, but with Hernandez and Edelman showing the ability to play slot receiver, this could be Welker’s last season in New England at age 31.