The Patriots lost their home opener for the first time since 2001 with a 20-18 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. It was perhaps the most unexpected loss in recent memory for the Patriots.
The actual game however, will likely be overshadowed this week by scrutiny over the usage of franchise wide receiver Wes Welker.
Welker did not start the game (though he was announced as a starter) and only entered the game after Aaron Hernandez suffered an ankle sprain that will likely keep him out until November.
Whether it is Tom Curran and Ron Borges arguing over the use or Welker, or sports radio hosts and callers and Twitter NFL experts angrily questioning whether Bill Belichick knows what’s best for his team.
Greg A. Bedard tries to cover all possibilities – Role of Patriots’ Welker further in doubt
Karen Guregian asks if we’re nuts to wonder what is going on here – Again, Wes isn’t more
Tom E. Curran says even Welker seems mystified at what’s happening – Welker was a backup plan vs. Cardinals
While it’s natural to look in from the outside and wonder what is happening here, looking back through the Bill Belichick era, three situations come to mind that may shed light on what is going on here.
In so many ways this is reminiscent of the Lawyer Milloy situation nine years ago. The reaction outside of Gillette is almost the same as well. Even though Welker has not been cut or traded, check out these Boston.com “Ask Nick” columns from September 5th 2003 and September 12, 2003.
Does that reaction sound similar to what is happening right now? With Milloy, there were a couple of things that led to his release – his contract and his play. Belichick felt that Milloy wasn’t the player he had been even two years before, and wasn’t worth the contract that he was playing under. They tried to get him to take less to be more in line with what they thought he was worth, and it was certainly in Milloy’s right to refuse a paycut.
Milloy refused, and he was cut the week before the season began. The Patriots had signed Rodney Harrison in the offseason and felt that he would replace Milloy’s production at a more reasonable price. Read the hysterical reaction in those “Ask Nick” columns and then look back at how things turned out.
Belichick and the Patriots saw something that needed to be changed and made that change, unpopular as it was. Nine years later, people are still acting like Belichick is a simpleton who has no idea what he’s doing when it comes to his football team. The Patriots made a similar call to the Milloy one when they traded Richard Seymour to Oakland the week prior to the 2009 season. It was again a production/value call for them, knowing they likely would not be able to sign Seymour after the season. Instead of letting it play out and getting nothing, they got a first round pick.
It’s a fact that Welker has been historically productive during his time here. It’s also a fact that he’s been underpaid during that tenure. He’s been good value for the Patriots. He’s also 31 and has taken a lot of pounding over the last five-plus seasons. He’s getting the biggest payday of his career this season. He could make more next year. The Patriots need to decide whether his production is going to continue and whether the value is there, or whether they can get similar production at a better value. That sounds cold, but its reality. It makes zero sense to give him big money for extended years because “he’s earned it.” You don’t do business that way. Milloy was beloved around here. Welker is probably even more beloved. But the Patriots are going to do what is best for the team. They’re unlikely to cut Welker right now, since his contact is guaranteed for the season, but they need to see whether it is worth extending his tenure here.
Let’s now go back two years for the second situation. The duo of Welker and Randy Moss had been as productive as any combination in football. But even in 2009, as documented in the Bill Belichick – A Football Life episode Belichick knew that the offense was flawed, and that they were entirely too reliant on those two players. He was proved correct. That team was perhaps the weakest of the post 2001 era, and I include the 2002 team in that. I don’t think even Richard Seymour would’ve made a huge difference for them. They got smoked in the wild card game by the Ravens, and in that offseason, changes began with the drafting of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
The 2010 season began and Randy Moss, a smart player, could see what was going on. The offense was changing. His own contract was up at the end of the season, so he went about making noise about it. There was an alleged shouting incident on a plane ride home from Miami, following a game in which Moss was targeted just once and did not catch a pass. Moss was traded to Minnesota shortly thereafter. Deion Branch was brought back, a player who had the confidence of Brady and who would assist in the transition by offering a familiar target while the offense transitioned to an increased focus on the short game and multiple tight end sets.
The offense took off after that point, and even though the season ended with another disappointing one-and-done in the playoffs, the offensive transition was moving forward. Last season it continued, with a record season from Gronkowski and sensational seasons from Hernandez and Welker. But still, the season ended in disappointment when the New York Giants again exploited the weaknesses in the schemes. For most defenses the Patriots offense was more than they could handle, but for certain squads with the ability to get to the quarterback, the offense still could be disrupted. More tweaking was needed. A healthy Gronkowski would’ve helped in the Super Bowl, but the Giants still pretty much did what they wanted in that game.
Exit Bill O’Brien, (re)enter Josh McDaniels. While the offensive philosophies would essentially stay consistent, the role that Welker plays is clearly under examination here. They seem to feel that the offense has been too reliant on Welker and they want to do some other things here. (Game one in Tennessee seemed to indicate they wanted to run the ball more, but yesterday seemed to set that back a bit.) The offense is transitioning again, and like Moss in 2010, Welker has seen a decreased role in the early going. The injury to Hernandez yesterday seemed to have thrown a wrench in the plans for the offense, putting Welker back into a bigger role than they originally had planned.
It might well be that the Patriots want to save wear on Welker for the long season, or there is the third example from the Belichick era that is worth looking back on and seeing if it applies here. Bedard and Curran have both said Edelman had a better camp than Welker. Outsiders would have a hard time believing that Edelman could out-play Welker.
In the summer of 2001, Drew Bledsoe was firmly entrenched as the Patriots franchise quarterback. He had even signed a huge contract reflecting that. Nothing seemed more certain than that Bledsoe would be the quarterback of this team. But quietly that summer, the guy who had started the previous season as the fourth-string quarterback impressed the coaches with his preparation, work ethic and improvement. By the time the preseason ended, Tom Brady was the clear number two QB, and according to some, there was talk that Brady could already start over Bledsoe. The Patriots were lackluster in their first two games under Bledsoe, and a hit late in the second game which sidelined Bledsoe opened the door for Brady, who never gave up the job.
In the video above where Curran and Borges argue, Borges laughs at and ridicules the notion that anything can be learned by watching training camp and preseason. He states that he prefers to watch real games to make his judgements. Of course Borges was leading the pack early on in saying that Brady couldn’t play and that Bledsoe should get his job back. Could it be that the coaches are simply going with the player that they feel give them a better chance to win at this time, no matter what perception outside of their circle is?
When the team makes these kinds of tough decisions, the early results are not always pretty, which just amps up the criticism. In Brady’s second start, against the Dolphins, he looked dreadful, and the team sat at 1-3. He threw four picks in Denver to drop the team to 3-4, before they caught fire, losing just one more game the rest of the season. After Milloy’s release, the Patriots lost to Buffalo and their newly signed safety, Lawyer Milloy 31-0. Drew Bledsoe quarterbacked that Bills team which added even more fuel to the fire. After the Seymour trade, the 2009 Patriots struggled most of the season.
But on the balance, the Patriots make decisions for what is going to be best for the long term stability and success of the franchise. Most of their decisions have worked out. (You can debate the Seymour one, but I’d say he was gone anyway, and that team wasn’t winning the Super Bowl that season even with Seymour.) I’d say overall the track record is pretty good here.
Tell me who has been better over the last decade. Does it mean they’re immune from criticism? Of course not.
But trust me, the people inside that building generally know more than you or the media do. Whatever the reason that Wes Welker’s workload has changed in the early part of this season, they have a damn good reason for it. They’re just not going to tell you. Nor should they.
In mind, it comes down to one of two things:
Either the Patriots offense is changing to be less reliant on what Welker brings to it (either for strategic reasons or in anticipation of losing him), or, the Patriots feel that Julian Edelman is more deserving to be on the field at this time.