Blair Miller > DEEP POSTS
Our leading (and only) football writer gives his unconventional – and occasionally obsessively detailed – take on recent happenings in the pigskin world.
Why Letting Wes Welker Go Makes Sense
AUTHOUR’S NOTE: We’re back after a bit of a hiatus…. When your writing staff is a staff of one (and a faithful proofreader Count Yorga, who does his best to catch my 5am-induced typos) and that staff member’s paying job gets super-busy, well, somebody’s gotta pay the Williams. Stay tuned in the next week or so for the better-late-than-never TFQ Upside-Down Awards for the 2012 NFL season. AND – in 8 days we’ll be opening the first door on our NFL Draft Advent Calendar, which will be a team analysis of each team’s status heading into the NFL’s Christmas, when GMs and teammates get new presents to play with. We will also be starting a new column, High Posts, during the NBA playoffs. So stick around, faithful readers!
The first day and a half of the 2013 free agency period in the NFL started off with a rash of surprisingly high prices being paid for players that ended up in unsurprising places. $40.5 million and $35 million for ex-Raven defenders Paul Kruger and Dannell Ellerbe, respectively (both 5-year deals for role players who started 15 games combined over the last two regular seasons) were among the bank-breaking deals for relatively unproven assets. Yet most of the free agent signings until Wednesday afternoon had been players signing with teams that many observers had expected them to go to.
And then came the deal that seemed to fill more pants than a Metamucil test group. A relatively low price was paid for a wide receiver that has done just about all that he can do to prove his worth. I’m talking, of course, of Wes Welker’s departure from Foxborough. That Welker got lowballed wasn’t that much of a surprise – the perceived shock was that he took the deal from the Denver Broncos, and not the reputably frugal New England Patriots. During six years in New England, Welker missed just three regular season games despite tearing up his knee in Week 17 of the 2009 season. (He played in the 2010 season opener, a feat that looked impressive – that was, until Adrian Peterson was running through oncoming Buicks after a similar injury.) That six-year period with the Pats is eye-popping: 672 receptions for 7,459 yards and 37 touchdowns. (The TD total seems low, huh? I’ll get to that.) But in a move that at first glance seems like the shrewdest move by an always-shrewd team, those gaudy numbers were sent packing for more mountainous pastures. The initial report: Welker was offered a 2-year, $10 million deal by the Pats, and then signed a 2-year, $12 million with the Broncos instead. It wasn’t long before the plot thickened. In a matter of about two hours, the Patriots inked former Rams slot receiver Danny Amendola – who is widely viewed as a Welker clone – to a 5-year, $31 million deal.
There is more to this situation than meets the eye. In a detailed report by Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com it would appear that New England’s swapping of slot machines wasn’t exactly the result of a random pull of the lever. Actually, the mere notion that Welker’s departure comes as a shock to so many observers is more shocking than the move itself. In another feat of short-term memory, people seem to have forgotten last year’s friction between the team and their slot receiver, when, prior to the season, Welker publicly claimed he was being phased out of the offense. That proved untrue after a 118-catch, 1,354-yard regular season in 2012. But Welker’s sentiments were likely founded in the fact that, as Tom Curran of Comcast SportsNet New England has pointed out, the Patriots sent personnel advisor Floyd Reese to negotiate with Welker’s camp last offseason. Reese has about as much authority to make a deal without head coach Bill Belichick or owner Robert Kraft as anyone working at The Gem Saloon has brokering a deal without Deadwood’s Al Swearengen – which is to say none, cocksucker.
Such was the climate entering this free agency period. Reiss gives a reliable account of a New England front office that didn’t respond to Welker immediately when the free agency period began because they were in the midst of negotiating with Amendola. Eventually that typical tipping point came when the Patriots realized that their relationship with Welker might be too fragile, and Amendola would be a sought-after commodity, so they opted to snap up Amendola instead of risking losing the chance to sign either men – hence the short time that elapsed between Welker’s signing with Denver and Amendola’s deal with New England.
Nonetheless, many Patriots fans are up in arms. Sports Illustrated’s Peter King – the resident media cheerleader for New England (pardon the expression “resident”; he happens to have lived in Boston for a long time) and a trailblazer for un-objective sports reporting – decried the move in an article written just hours after Welker left and Amendola signed. (After all, why assess the deals in a thoughtful manner when you can react emotionally, as soon as possible?) Many Pats fans I’ve already talked to aren’t just sore about the way that l’il ’ol Wes was cast away. They at least understand that to complain about the way their favourite team cuts loose beloved players in possible anticipation of their decline is to criticize the ballyhooed Patriot Way. What really gets under the skin of such fans is that now Welker is playing alongside their team’s arch nemesis, Broncos QB Peyton Manning.
Give Welker some credit – he knows how crucial an elite QB like New England’s Tom Brady has been to his success, and he endeavored to replicate that situation as best he could by going to the team with the quarterback who has been famously compared to Brady in a decade-long debate about which of the two is the best QB in the NFL. In fact, in his first press conference since signing with Denver, Welker described the courtship process as one in which he pitched himself to the Broncos – an unusual circumstance for the only player in league history with five seasons of 100-plus receptions. What’s more, according to Reiss, another unidentified AFC team had made an offer to Welker – $15 million over two years. ESPN’s Adam Schefter (via Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com) reported that this team was the Titans. If these reports are true, then Welker turned down $3 million dollars in the downswing of his career, not just to join a contender, but also to actively market himself to John Elway, the president of the team that boasts the most likely QB after Brady to help Welker replicate the favourable role he filled in New England.
What role is that, exactly, and why could it be considered “favorable”? As Reiss puts it, “Belichick has noted that part of the function of New England’s offense sets that position up for big production.” No shit. In the Divisional Round edition of What I Saw last season, I noted the Patriots’ propensity to play football in a way that favors as few hard-to-replace players as possible:
“But the hallmark of New England’s schemes is that the sum is greater than its exchangeable parts. (Not expendable, as most people like to say – smart athletic pieces are needed to execute the game plan – but exchangeable with other roster members.)…It’s probable that New England will not re-sign Welker this offseason, putting their strategy of roster replaceability to its toughest test since Brady was lost for the year in 2009 and Matt Cassel stepped in to guide the Pats to 10 wins.”
While it’s no secret that Brady is the Patriots’ most valuable player, Welker’s value as a star player beyond the value of his positional role within the New England offense tends to be overrated. Even Hall Of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin gushed about Welker’s perceived talent on NFL Network while assessing his deal with Denver, alluding to Welker’s “ability to get open” and “great timing”. What’s frustrating about such praise is that those who are quick to heap it on Welker must be watching someone else on the field until he catches the ball. To be more specific, they’re not watching him run his patterns.
To date, the Patriots are arguably the most productive team at executing what I consider to be the most under-recognized yet influential change in technique that has helped the passing game evolve in leaps and bounds the way it has since the 1980s. I’m referring to what I call the “speed cut” – or at least that’s what it was called when I was taught it in Canadian university football in the mid-90s. Most knowledgeable football fans are familiar with the traditional “hard cut”, when a receiver runs a pass pattern that requires a 90-degree turn by planting and making a hard, sharp cut in either direction in order to create separation from a defender. In my lifetime of watching football, Sterling Sharpe has been the most impressive, quickest and most powerful receiver at making these cuts – especially on out patterns. But that’s just the thing – executing a conventional 90-degree cut requires those physical skills. A speed cut, on the other hand, is performed by “rounding out” the cut and taking a curved route to the same area. It’s called a speed cut because one doesn’t really need to slow down and come in/out of the cut with athleticism and quickness. In fact, one can even speed up while turning into a speed cut because the route is curved. This puts defenders at a distinct disadvantage because they have little to no time to close on the receiver when they see him making a cut. Just try to picture it: You’d never be running at a defender with a speed cut – you’d be running away from them. I was never a terribly quick receiver, but I was fast. Once taught the speed cut, I – with a merely above-average skill set – was able to get open reliably. Imagine what it can do for a player who has pro-level talent, even if he isn’t a physical specimen.
It’s no coincidence that the rise in productivity of the slot receiver has somewhat coincided with the proliferation of the speed cut. Already lined up behind the line of scrimmage – and thus with immediate separation from defenders when the ball is snapped – the player lined up in the slot can essentially make a speed cut after merely crossing the line of scrimmage and be open every time. In other words, instead of creating separation, the speed cut simply uses already-existing separation. If this player doesn’t get passed the ball, it’s rarely because they are covered too closely; it’s because either a more lucrative option was available, the defense pressured the passer and/or congested the passing lane, or the quarterback deemed that the slot receiver’s running angles after making the catch would be cut off by pursuing defenders.
I know what many of you are thinking at this point: I’m making Welker’s job sound too easy. Sure, there’s a lot more to filling the slot receiver’s role than just getting open. (Primarily, being talented enough to break those shorter passes for big gains, which I’ll address below.) But as far as getting open, Welker deserves little to no praise. He’s simply taking advantage of an underrated but tried and true technique of running patterns that New England has integrated into their system so that they rely less and less on the rare and difficult-to-scout (and pay!) star talent that many other teams covet. By the way, those other teams tend to suffer greatly when those star players either get injured or leave for more high-paying pastures. I believe this – scheme and the execution of it – is what makes letting Welker go less of a risk for New England than some might think. If you doubt this, just go back and take a look at Julian Edelman’s productive 10-catch, 103-yard game in Week 17 of the 2009 season against Houston when Welker tore his knee early in the game. If you think Edelman is a very talented pro receiver, well, then there’s not much I can do for you.
As such, Denver makes a lot of sense for Welker, because Manning has benefitted from the speed cut himself – in particular when TE Dallas Clark took that role in the offense to the next step after Brandon Stokley got it started in Indianapolis. (The argument can be made that Clark ran more vertical, non-speed cut dependent patterns at times. After all, he has six inches of height on the impish Welker.) One of the reasons Clark wasn’t fed the ball as much as Welker is because Manning also had the luxury of two elite wideouts in the form of Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne, and it’s worth noting that the Patriots have been trying to put go-to receivers on the outside ever since letting Randy Moss go, but it hasn’t exactly worked out well. (Don’t blame Brady for trying – newly acquired WR Brandon Lloyd was second on the team in targets last season behind Welker, despite disappointing production.)
None of this should imply that Welker isn’t talented. He is well above average as a receiver. But his status is elevated because of his situation, not his physical ability. Think Hall of Fame RB (and career rushing yards leader) Emmitt Smith running through Buick-sized holes created by one of the best offensive line units of the modern era…. The fact is that Welker’s role is very “West Coast”: running short yardage patterns, paper cuts, and trying to make extra yards out of them. And he’s been damn good at doing so. According to a piece by ColdHardFootballFacts, Welker’s yards-after-the-catch percentage (of his total yards) is 52.19 percent – the highest rate for any receiver with at least 400 receptions. However, that can be deceiving when one constantly catches the ball in so shallow an area downfield that one is usually about 3-4 yards away from potential tacklers at the spot of the catch. When players with star-caliber talent like Jerry Rice or Terrell Owens catch balls while running such patterns, they tend to create explosive results. When someone like Welker tries his hand at the same thing, the results have been historic in terms of completing passes, but they have been far from explosive.
Consider that Welker has just 38 career regular season TDs on 768 receptions. That’s one TD per every 20.2 receptions. I took a look at the 29 players in NFL history who have more catches than Welker’s. The only one of them who has a worse TD-per-reception ratio is a fullback (Larry Centers, with 29.54). The next one down on the list is a tight end. Jason Witten (18.32) has had four seasons of 3 receiving TDs or less, and has a similar reputation to Welker’s in that they can catch the ball like machines, but score about as often as the guys in Big Bang Theory. There’s a considerable gap after that, with the next bunch of players sitting in the 14.0 range. (For some perspective, the best Rec-TD ratios among the 30 players with the most career receptions belong to Randy Moss, and the aforementioned Owens and Rice, with 6.29, 7.05 and 7.86, respectively.) Maybe Welker could thrive once put in situations that allow him to play beyond the limitations that the Patriots scheme imposed on him. But there’s two immediate responses to that: As explained, New England’s offense is built not to rely on such outstanding athletic performances (although the staff isn’t so daft as to deny star talent their opportunities – see Moss, Randy, Gronkowski, Rob), and my bet is that Denver tries to use Welker in such similar a fashion that we may never know what he’d be like in a more opportune role.
That being said, it’s important to emphasize that not just any average receiver can be depended upon to produce reliably at any position – let alone to the statistical extent that Welker has in New England. And it’s too early to weigh in on the value of the Amendola signing in terms of how capably he’ll replace Welker. In the same article I just mentioned, CHFF points out that Amendola’s average of 8.81 yards per catch is the lowest in league history among players with at least 100 receptions. He’s missed 20 games over the last two seasons due to injury, so not only is the sample pool on him small, but he obviously has to stay healthier than he has been in the past if he’s going to justify getting paid more per season over a longer period than the Patriots offered Welker to stick around. This post is more about the Pats letting Welker go and how it makes more sense than it might seem.
Perhaps the widespread assumption was that Brady had restructured his deal to help keep Welker. (Maybe that’s even what the QB himself thought.) But as CHFF points out in another apt article, what the Pats need to fix is their defense, not an offense that is enjoying a dynasty-like stretch of domination unrivaled since the 49ers under Bill Walsh. That’s a story for another post. For now, let’s just say that if New England ends up suffering from the loss of Welker, it won’t be due to bad strategy.
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