- Jackie MacMullan, ESPNBoston.com columnist
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- They say numbers don't lie, but of course Wes Welker knows better.
According to the numbers, he's one of the most prolific receivers in New England Patriots history. He will continue his assault on the franchise record book when his team opens the season Sunday against the Tennessee Titans.
Welker, who has caught 554 career passes in a Patriots uniform, needs just four receptions to surpass Troy Brown as New England's all-time leading receiver. (Brown, incidentally, played more than twice as many games).
Since Welker joined New England in 2007, no other player in the NFL has caught more passes.
No one in the league except Welker has had at least 110 receptions in any three seasons, and he did it consecutively.
The numbers suggest he is prized, valuable, perhaps even irreplaceable.
And, yet, his one-year franchise tender for $9.25 million suggests a veteran receiver with a history of concussions (at least four, probably more) who has no job security beyond this year, who watched his team reward younger tight ends (Aaron Hernandez, Rob Gronkowski) with contracts that afforded them the financial status and security Welker was seeking.
Hernandez and Gronkowski are the future. Welker is very much in the present and quite possibly in his final year as a Patriot. He is, by all accounts, a maniacal worker, a practical joker and energetic presence in the locker room, a close friend and favorite target of Tom Brady. The "heart and soul" of the team, his quarterback once declared.
This contract was supposed to be Welker's pay day for his years of excellence, for his perseverance in overcoming a gruesome knee injury, but that's not how the NFL business model works.
There's plenty of chatter regarding "windows closing" on the Patriots' title hopes in these parts. In Welker's case, it must feel as though all 10 of his fingers got slammed in that sill.
The numbers say he has done his job, but as we all know, when it comes to the New England Patriots, only one number truly holds any weight: How many rings you got?
For Welker, it's zero, but not just any zero. We're talking one of the most searing, excruciating, unbearable zeroes in New England football history.
Need I say more? His drop in Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants left him -- and most of New England -- inconsolable. Seven months have passed, yet the indelible image of the ball slipping through his hands remains.
"It's kind of hard to forget," conceded Welker, "but you have to move past it.
"You have to move on and try and get an opportunity again."
It is merely stating the obvious that those opportunities are fleeting, precious.
In the old days, the glory days of Bruschi and McGinest and Vrabel, if you had zero rings in the Patriots locker room you were either a rookie or a veteran newcomer. That was back when Tom Brady + Bill Belichick = championship. That equation hasn't panned out since 2005.
That's eight seasons ago.
It's no longer even accurate to say the "nucleus" of those championship teams is gone. What was left of the nucleus, in the wake of Matt Light's retirement and the decision to jettison Deion Branch and Dan Koppen, is now, officially, obliterated.
The only players left who have the moniker of the coveted Lombardi trophy next to their names are Brady and Vince Wilfork.
Welker would prefer to pass on the membership to that club.
Asked if his friend's legacy would be tainted if he never wins a Super Bowl, Brady answered, "Well, personally it doesn't change my opinion of him. But [numbers] aren't what we play for. We play as a team to build on one thing -- to win football games.
"I got a question the other day about how can Rob Gronkowski have a better season than he did last year. How about winning something? At the end of the day, that's what it's all about, not whether he has nine catches or seven catches. It's about how we do as an offense, as a team, how we can all complement each other.
"Because if one guy gets all the passes, that's not good. It's like in basketball. If one guy has 50 points and no else scores and we lose 100-50. That's not good."
Last February in Super Bowl XLVI, Welker was targeted eight times and hauled in seven passes for 60 yards.
But you don't remember any of the catches, do you? The only play anyone recalls with clarity is his one and only drop in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. The Patriots were nursing a two-point lead at the time, the Giants had blown the coverage and Welker streaked down the left side. Brady threw a bit behind him, but the ball was in Welker's hands -- and then out again.
You know the rest. New York scored on the ensuing drive and went on to win the Super Bowl. Never mind that both Branch and Hernandez dropped catchable balls in the final frantic minutes. This one was on Welker's head.
The usual angst-ridden Boston debate ensued. Most blamed Welker, some blamed Brady. It was mildly reminiscent of the old passed ball or wild pitch discussion following the 1986 World Series debacle.
Should Welker have caught the pass? Yes, of course. Could Brady have thrown a better ball? Absolutely.
Undoubtedly the play was mentioned during their shared Costa Rican vacation last summer. Welker said he and his friend talked about many things, but, he said, "football is such a big part of our life, it's going to come up."
His teammates say Brady has helped Welker move beyond the disappointment. It was difficult for everyone to witness a devastated Welker pull off his jersey that night in Indianapolis.
"Everything means so much to him," Brady explained. "He cares unlike anyone else."
That's because he's had no choice. Welker was a high school phenom who returned punts, caught passes, kicked field goals, all with such warp speed he often vomited in between series. It got him only one scholarship offer, to Texas Tech, and only after another recruit reneged at the last minute.
Welker starred at Texas Tech, too, but still he went undrafted.
He knows he needs to do more than the bigger, stronger, faster receivers. He needs to be smarter.
"There's not one second of one day where Wes isn't doing something to help himself be a better player for this team," Brady said. "The other morning he came to me and said, 'Hey Tommy, this play we ran yesterday. On this route, what I'm going to do is if I see him off, I'm going to set him up, and then I'm going to dip this way,' and I'm like, 'OK, hold up, Wes,' because what he was talking about came up one time in practice on a Wednesday.
"But that's just how Wes thinks. He just doesn't stop analyzing the game or practice, or 'How can I make this route similar to that route?'
"He's like a good boxer with a lot of weapons. He'll set you up with one thing, then take advantage of you with another, and he wants to make them all look the same so you can never really get a beat on him."
Disguising routes is all about timing and preparation and repetition. It's hard work, tedious work, yet Brady and Welker have gladly entered a partnership to perfect their connection.
"We try to talk through different things so we can switch it up on teams," Welker said. "When I go to Tom, I'm making sure he knows what I'm doing, what I'm thinking.
"If you make your routes look the same, especially at the start, it's hard for them to figure out what you're running."
Assuming he remains healthy, Welker is also on target to leapfrog over Brown to second place on the Patriots' all-time receiving yards list. Welker has amassed 6,105 yards in New England but won't be able to catch Stanley Morgan (10,352 yards), at least not for several more seasons.
Welker participated in only 16 preseason snaps, in part because of a death in the family. He has spent extra time in the weight room, film room, with his playbook and with Brady, attempting to make up for lost time.
"It would have been nice to get a few reps, but at the same time I've been in this offense for a while," Welker said. "I know what they need me to do."
With Branch gone (perhaps only temporarily?) and newcomer Brandon Lloyd still trying to develop some chemistry with Brady, Welker will likely remain a desirable target. The inevitable transfer of power to the Kid Lugs (Gronkowski and Hernandez) is in motion, but Welker remains a vital piece of this Patriots offense.
"This locker room is starting to make me feel old," Welker quipped.
He isn't old. Not really. Welker is only 31, but that can be deceiving in NFL terms. It's a number he can't do anything about.
Nobody cares about Welker's 11 catches for 109 yards in Super Bowl XLII, a superb performance that was forgotten amid David Tyree's improbable helmet catch. That could have been Welker's ring, and Moss' too, but the Giants prevailed on a miracle play.
There have been no miracles in Wes Welker's professional football life; only sweat and dirt and redemption and despair.
There's only one number on his docket he needs to change.
Until that championship goose egg is eradicated, Wes Welker will forever be tormented by the one and only thing that got away.
Wes Welker's one and only goal is to win a Super Bowl ring with the Pats.