Commentary

Sorting out the Welker issue

While many want to dig further, the Patriots have bigger concerns

Updated: September 18, 2012, 1:01 PM ET
By Mike Reiss | ESPNBoston.com

Wes Welker's role with the Patriots is the dominant topic in this week's mailbag. We'll cover all layers of that storyline, which from a pure football perspective, I'd rank lower on the team's list of current issues.

The general tone of the mailbag is negative after Sunday's disappointing loss to the Cardinals in the home opener. No surprise there, as few saw that result coming.

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels takes some heat from emailers, while some see a silver lining with the performance of the defense.

Let's get right to it.

Q. Hey Mike, my question concerns Wes Welker. Could this just be BB trying Julian Edelman in the starting role to have a better idea of Welker's importance to the team? If they can win with Edelman, BB would feel better about letting Welker go after the season. It feels like he learned from the Richard Seymour trade that you can't get rid of your stars unless you're sure other players can fill the hole. Thoughts? -- Justin (San Francisco)

A. Justin, call me na´ve, but I truly don't believe this is anything but a result of a meritocracy. My first instinct was that it was a shame what was happening to Welker, who has done great things for the franchise from 2007 to 2011 but is being phased out because of the contract situation. Then I went back and re-watched the game with an attempt to remove any preconceived bias, reported a bit on the storyline with context going back to the spring, and came to the following conclusion: This is a bigger media issue than it is a football issue. I understand why, because it's interesting given some of the factors in play (contract, prior value to the team, etc.). I opined on the topic in this story, and I'm sure this will result in some calling me a homer, and that's fine. I feel confident that I've done my homework. The bottom line to me is that this offense is changing and the tight ends are doing some of the things Welker used to do, Edelman has closed the gap a bit, and that's going to scale back Welker's role from what we've seen in the past. Will it be the right decision in the end? We'll see, and we will opine when more results are there to analyze.

[+] EnlargeJulian Edelman
Greg M. Cooper/US PresswireWhile WR Julian Edelman got the starting role against the Cardinals on Sunday...

Q. I would really like to see a breakdown of the snaps that Edelman and Welker had in the third and fourth quarters. All the conspiracy theories going around, I just wonder if the reason Edelman was in the game in the beginning was to establish the run. Depending on the snaps, I am sure in the fourth quarter Wes Welker was in the game more. -- Jon (Huntsville, Ala.)

A. Jon, I charted every snap and re-watched the game, specifically focusing on this area. We're talking about 15 snaps that Edelman was on instead of Welker (in 2 WR/2 TE/1 RB grouping) and three of them came when the offense was setting up the final field-goal attempt so I don't really count those. While it is interesting to wonder if the gap would have been wider had Aaron Hernandez not been injured -- Edelman was clearly the No. 2 receiver over Welker in the game plan -- let's just focus on the 12 meaningful snaps that Edelman was on in place of Welker. On three of them, Stevan Ridley had runs of 20, 12 and 10 yards. Edelman had blocks on Patrick Peterson (20-yarder) and William Gay (12, 10 yards) that weren't primary factors but contributed to the result. That would support your theory, although I would also say that Welker is a solid blocker as well. I'd sum up my thoughts this way: If you strip away perception and focus solely on what we saw on the game tape, both made plays to help the team win (e.g. Welker's 25- and 36-yard catches; Edelman with three catches on the touchdown drive to pull to 20-18 and run blocking) and both were involved in plays that contributed to the loss (e.g. Welker drop on sideline, Edelman targeted on opening INT). There was not a major difference to me when comparing one against the other. On the list of reasons why the Patriots' offense is struggling, I'd put this closer to the bottom than the top.

Q. Hi Mike, many have hypothesized that Edelman's increased snap count (and a decrease in Welker's) has been due to Edelman's superiority in blocking for the running game. Do you know snap counts for Edelman and Welker for designed run versus pass plays, and do you believe the running game has resulted in their changing roles in the offense? -- Nick F. (Urbandale, Iowa)

A. Nick, here is the breakdown of 12 snaps (not including the three that came at the end of the game to set up the final field-goal attempt) that Edelman was on for Welker: 7 rushes, 5 passes. Taking it one step further, it was 7 rushes for 47 yards (6.7 avg.) and 3 of 4 passing for 19 yards, with an interception and a sack. I don't think run-blocking is the main reason Edelman is on the field instead of Welker in those situations.

Q. Mike, I've had a feeling all through the preseason that there might be some changes in the approach with Wes Welker. Rather than the conspiracy theory ideas that the team was upset at him for not accepting a long-term offer, I looked at what happened in the offseason and in camp. While Welker is back on a one-year deal, they have invested in the tight ends going forward, and it's natural some of the focus might shift there. Having said all that, do you think it's actually possible that Julian Edelman beat him out because of a few missed practices around a death in the family? That seems extreme even with the approach that some of the focus may go away from Welker this year. -- Dean (Taunton, Mass.)

A. Dean, I don't think this is about a few missed practices because of a death in the family. And I think it's too strong to say that Edelman has beaten Welker out at this point (total snaps through two games -- Welker 106, Edelman 98). I'd say the most accurate way to put it is that the gap has closed, and it's a cumulative effect. Edelman had a very good offseason and is an ascending player. Welker has had better offseasons. You look at both players' performance through the first two games, and can anyone, without bias, say one player is outperforming the other? Combine the shifting of offensive focus with tight ends operating in the area of the field Welker has done his most damage, and it starts to make some sense.

Q. Hi Mike, I almost couldn't believe my eyes when I saw Boomer Esiason's opinion of the Welker situation on the blog. It's always nice to get the opinion of a national writer or commentator, but his thoughts reek of someone looking for attention or with no clue how this team operates (or some combination of both). Nobody understands better than Belichick that this game is a business, and that Wes Welker needs to do what is right for Wes Welker. If what's best for Welker isn't what's best for the Patriots, then so be it. The mere suggestion that Belichick would punish a player, the team and himself by benching a player because he wouldn't sign an extension he didn't feel was fair to him is simply absurd. Remember when Logan Mankins held out in 2010, and Belichick welcomed him back with open arms because he made the team better? And the situation in 2007 when I think we all understood Asante Samuel was gone as soon as somebody put some guaranteed money in front of him, but he played every game and made first-team All-Pro? Nobody is better at compartmentalizing contract issues and other off-the-field stuff than Belichick. There is something else going on with Welker here, and it may be a change in attitude or commitment, a sudden deterioration of skills, or something else behind the scenes that we will probably never find out about, but I will sleep soundly tonight with the comfort that Belichick is not doing anything that would hurt the team's chances of winning games to "send a message" to a player. -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)

[+] EnlargeWes Welker
David Butler II/US Presswire...Wes Welker played meaningful minutes and there wasn't a major difference in production when comparing one against the other.

A. Tim, this is no disrespect to the widely respected Boomer Esiason, but I feel the same way. I've given this a lot of thought, and it just doesn't make sense to me. We can point to the Lawyer Milloy release and Seymour trade as Belichick moves that made the team weaker in the short term but arguably aided the franchise from a long-term perspective. But has there ever been a time where Belichick willingly paid a player a top-5 salary at his position and then decided he would limit his role out of spite that a long-term contract couldn't be reached, thus creating a potential distraction? The fact some truly believe this is surprising to me.

Q. Hi Mike, I saw the preseason release of three veteran Patriots WRs as incomprehensible and unwise because of the very potential of the situation now facing the Patriots and the supposed lesson of last year's Super Bowl with an injured Rob Gronkowski. It was made obvious by the inexplicable delay in adjustment to focus on Welker in a time of significant need. Will WRs be recalled or simply return to a Welker focus? -- Jake M. (Vancouver)

A. Jake, I don't think the answer is to "get back to focusing on Welker." In the best-case scenario for the Patriots, they have a balanced offense, both between the run and the pass, and also in terms of distribution in who is catching the ball. As for those veteran receivers, they are all available if the Patriots choose to go in that direction but it looks like they're focusing more on the tight-end spot with Kellen Winslow Jr. than that area.

Q. Hey Mike, is it me, or was this a loss with a sugarcoated message? Sure, Hernandez went down and there's all this (overblown, in my opinion) talk of Welker's reduced role, but everyone seems to be missing what I think is a bigger, positive issue: The defense has looked darned good. It has seemingly shifted from much-maligned to surprisingly effective. The Patriots have allowed an average of 62 yards per game on the ground (5th in the league), and that's including a game against Chris Johnson. They've also managed to hold teams to an average of around 200 yards passing per game, impressive considering both the secondary's performance last year and the records being set this year for passing yardage per week across the league. Finally, it'd be hard to miss this golden nugget: We're averaging more than 125 yards on the ground in offense. Sure, the Patriots have some work to do. But isn't this team looking more balanced than ever? -- Sean C.S. (Richmond, Va.)

A. Sean, I'd agree with the thought on the defense. It clearly looks better than last year and a big part of that is success on third down (Cardinals were 4 of 14), which traces back to being a faster, more athletic unit. First-round pick Chandler Jones has been terrific. The one area that should be mentioned, which adds context to the thought, is that Jake Locker and Kevin Kolb were the two quarterbacks they faced. There will be tougher tests ahead in the future.

Q. Mike, I had been thinking more about the last few games where Josh McDaniels has called games for Tom Brady (this week's loss and the first Super Bowl versus Giants). It appears that in both, once the defense or injury had taken away Randy Moss/Aaron Hernandez, McDaniels was unable to readjust. Is this something we should be concerned about going forward? -- Anand (New York)

A. Anand, let's start with the obvious: Sunday was not McDaniels' finest play-calling day. Give the edge to the Cardinals when it comes to coaching/play calling. We could say the same thing about the first Super Bowl, too. I still think McDaniels is a solid offensive coach, and it was only last week -- after the opener in Tennessee -- that many were singing his praises for a terrific game-calling effort. So I'd chalk it up more to a one-game blip than anything to truly be concerned about at this point.

Q. Hey Mike, I really feel that the defense is improving, but Josh McDaniels and Co. are trying to fix something that wasn't broken in the offense. The play calling was incredibly conservative Sunday, and the run game wasn't happening. The Pats always preach "take what the defense gives you" but without Hernandez it seemed the Cardinals' run defense had the advantage. The stubborn commitment to the run game prevented Brady from getting into a rhythm with his playmakers until it was too late. The Patriots have had the best offense in football the last few years, so while I like the idea of using Ridley's talents, why go so far to fix something that wasn't broken? -- Daniel R. (Monterey, Calif.)

A. Daniel, I agree that McDaniels had an off day. A couple of very curious calls in there on third down in the running game and/or trick plays (Danny Woodhead's 9-yard loss in the third quarter was apparently going to be a throwback pass to Brady). At the same time, there were some opportunities for plays to be made that if one or two of them go the Patriots' way, we might be talking about a different result. So while I think it's fair to question McDaniels, it's not as if there weren't opportunities there that could have bailed him out at times.

[+] EnlargeBrady/McDaniels
Jim Davis/Getty ImagesTom Brady and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels tried to figure things out in the fourth quarter on Sunday. Clearly it wasn't one of McDaniels' best play-calling games.

Q. Mike, with Hernandez's injury being an obvious concern, I thought it would be an appropriate time to ask you who you see as the more important offensive player for the Patriots other than Brady. Would you say Hernandez or Gronkowski? Or maybe even Welker? -- Ky (Eastvale, Calif.)

A. I'm going to go against the tide here, Ky, and say it's the offensive line. We saw in Sunday's home opener that if the line has too many breakdowns, it doesn't necessarily matter who is catching the ball. Obviously, that is a bit of an extreme view, and you can't have one without the other, but let's put it this way: If the line doesn't improve, this team isn't going to realize its championship aspirations.

Q. Hey Mike, can this offensive line get that much better? Not including the return of Brian Waters (who knows his current condition), but with who we have now, can they pull it together, or will Brady be dealing with pressure the whole way? They have a great coach, but you can only coach so much. -- Glenn (Boston)

A. Glenn, they can get better if Sebastian Vollmer returns to full-time right tackle duties, Logan Mankins keeps progressing in his recovery from ACL surgery six months ago, and Dan Connolly is back at right guard. That wasn't a very good performance from the line on Sunday. No sugarcoating it.

Q. Mike, obviously the loss of Hernandez is a huge story to monitor, and it is also obvious that he easily could have been the difference in a tight game we had a chance to win. But what I thought made the absence of Hernandez even bigger was how poorly Michael Hoomanawanui played. It seemed like every time I saw him he was missing blocks. Am I right on this? Did he just have a bad game and will bounce back, or is this guy going to get cut? -- Micah P. (Cambridge, Mass.)

A. Micah, Hoomanawanui missed a block on a key play in the game, the third-and-1 rush by Stevan Ridley around right end in the fourth quarter. Cornerback Patrick Peterson got into him as Hoomanawanui couldn't establish the edge. I thought he had a good block on Ridley's 20-yard run late in the first quarter, so it wasn't all bad, but the poor block on the 4-yard loss was a biggie.

Q. It seems that any time the Patriots have an unexpected loss (or any loss), panic ensues. People start writing articles about the "end of the dynasty" and begin to make bold predictions on whether the Bills or Jets will win the division. They tell you Belichick is really not that smart, and Brady gets rattled if you hit him. Then the Pats win 13 games, reload in the offseason and play in the Super Bowl. Sunday was a stunner, but let's not get carried away. The Patriots are among the league's best. -- Joel (Clinton, N.Y.)

A. Joel, I appreciate the passion. Indifference would be much, much worse. As a young, impressionable reporter covering the Patriots in 1997, a little-known veteran cornerback named Steve Lofton shared insight on this topic that I think about often. Lofton pointed out to me how the tone of the media coverage shifted so much on a week-to-week basis based on whether the team won or lost, and it was eye-opening to me when I stepped back and considered it from that perspective. He challenged me to hold the team accountable for the final result, but also look beyond just the score to answer the "why." While flatlining everything isn't always the right decision, I generally try to subscribe to Lofton's advice and avoid the knee-jerk overreaction to one loss.

Q. Mike, I liked your story about Nate Ebner. I'm living in New Zealand (the soul of rugby), but I'm from Worcester. I totally understand how a rugby player of Ebner's ilk could do what he's doing. I've done the exact opposite! I have been a coach of "American" football here in New Zealand, and most of the players are rugby players. My point is, they are, for players with no football experience, so easy to coach. Some basic skill sets (tackling, footwork, vision) for a rugby player are actually MORE advanced than your average football player. I don't know what you can do with that information, but just remember when you talk about Ebner to remember that skill set and that translation. -- Mark A. (Waihi, New Zealand)

A. Mark, thank you the compliments on the story (if I knew Ebner would be responsible for a blocked punt that hurt the Patriots two days later, I would have held off), and for the thoughts on rugby and how it translates to football. In this case, I don't think it's as much the rugby-to-football angle as it is early promise he's shown on defense. He played just three defensive snaps all last season at Ohio State. But Belichick pointed out some of the instincts he's shown on defense (interception in preseason, consistently around the ball in practice), so this will be something to watch in the weeks/years to come.

Q. It was reported that Curtis Painter worked out for the Patriots earlier this week. How do we interpret this? Is it a way for Bill to pick Painter's brain for when the Patriots face Peyton Manning (Colts teammates) or was it a message to Ryan Mallett that he needs to keep working hard and that the backup QB position isn't just given? I remember Painter being below average (that's being nice) with the Colts last season, so I doubt it's the latter. Thoughts? -- Matt (Newport, R.I.)

A. Matt, this one seems pretty simple to me. The Patriots have just two quarterbacks on their 53-man active roster, and no signal-callers on their practice squad, so it further highlights the importance of having an emergency list in the event of injury. One would think Brian Hoyer (who has yet to sign with another team) is atop that list, with Painter a bit further down the list. I wouldn't read anything more into it than that.

Q. Mike, excited about Troy Brown getting into the Patriots' Hall of Fame. He was the quintessential Patriot and deserves every bit of success. Now ... don't you think he deserves NFL Hall of Fame consideration? P.S. The classiest comment I ever heard from Randy Moss was when asked about Troy Brown, Moss responded with "I always considered myself the second-best receiver to come out of Marshall." Well-played Randy, well-played indeed. -- Frank K. (Bangkok, Thailand)

A. Frank, I don't think Troy Brown is a Pro Football Hall of Famer, but I certainly see him as a most worthy Patriots Hall of Famer. It was great to see some of the old No. 80 jerseys at Sunday's home opener. When it comes to clutch Patriots, and those who were among the most popular among the fan base, Brown is right there near the top of the list.

Q. Hi Mike, really sorry to see Ty Warren get hurt again. I had read a few weeks ago that he had a nice preseason and was primed to anchor the middle of the line in Denver. I think Seymour was always the big name on the defensive line during most of Warren's time here, but from 2006 to 2009 he was a rock for this team. Always showed up and played hard in one of the less-glorifying positions in Belichick's 3-4, and now he's going to end up playing just over one quarter of football over a period of three years. Too bad. Thoughts? -- Tim (Georgetown, Mass.)

A. Tim, it is a shame for Warren, one of the good guys to come through the Patriots locker room. This is a reminder of the physical toll that players take playing this game, how there is some luck involved, and also how sometimes teams try to anticipate when things could potentially head in that direction. One might say the Patriots/Bill Belichick did that with Warren when releasing him in 2011.

Q. Jason Whitlock recently wrote that Brian Waters is holding out due to a contract dispute. So who is right? You and your constant opinion that Waters wants to play closer to home, or many of the other writers out there who say it is a financial matter? -- John (Huntington Beach, Calif.)

A. Like anything else, John, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Waters definitely wants to play closer to home. Take that to the bank. At the same time, if the Patriots stepped up and offered him a few extra million dollars to report, could that sway his decision? One would think so.

Q. Hi Mike, Looking forward to another fun season. On the "3-up, 3-down" in the blog, I think it is awesome. Don't change a thing. I prefer to see your gut reactions rather than deep investigation into what we just saw. -- Dan C. (Melbourne Beach, Fla.)

A. Dan, thanks for the feedback. Gut reaction is part of this, too, and that's the main thing I try to stress on that "3-up, 3-down" blog entry after games. I feel like we do enough follow-up work/studying of the game in the 24-36 hours after it ends that we cover ourselves in that regard. It happened this week too. You looked at Danny Woodhead's stat line in the game (7 carries, 8 yards) and saw him unable to convert on a third-and-2 rush, and the first thought was that he was a "down." Then you watch the game over and the feeling was that the poor stat line was more a result of poor blocking/play calling than anything Woodhead himself did. One area to watch with Woodhead is how the return of Shane Vereen might affect his playing time.

Mike Reiss

ESPN New England Patriots reporter

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