The stunning events that led to receiver Wes Welker signing with the Denver Broncos on Wednesday, and the New England Patriots filling the void with Danny Amendola, came down quickly behind the scenes, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.
The breaking point came Tuesday in the mid-afternoon before the official start of free agency, when the Patriots and Welker's representatives halted contract talks. The team's offer, a two-year, $10 million pact with incentives that could have pushed it as high as $16 million but in the eyes of Welker would be extremely difficult to reach, wasn't accepted.
At that point, Welker and his representatives intensified their pursuit of other offers, and it helped that some groundwork had previously been laid with the Broncos. Likewise, the Patriots turned their attention to Amendola, who was their top choice if things didn't work out with Welker (and in the eyes of some on the other side of the negotiating table their top choice all along).
Things came together quickly with the Patriots and Amendola on a five-year, $31 million deal with $10 million guaranteed, and at that point, there was no looking back for the team. While the Patriots would have been pleased if Welker accepted their proposal -- owner Robert Kraft said Monday that he hoped Welker would retire as a Patriot -- the possibility of losing him and Amendola was deemed too risky, so they moved close to locking in the deal with Amendola not long after free agency began Tuesday.
After almost a year of on-and-off talks, had the Patriots felt they were closer to a possible agreement with Welker, perhaps they wouldn't have pushed so hard for Amendola at that point. But it was a stalemate that the club felt showed no signs of resolving itself -- the Patriots ready to move on, and Welker slowly but not completely becoming more comfortable envisioning himself catching passes from Peyton Manning instead of Tom Brady.
This is how it often works in free agency, with timing of the essence. Patriots coach Bill Belichick regularly says that he makes decisions in the best interests of the team, and in the 27-year-old Amendola he saw a quick, sure-handed target who was five years younger than Welker and committing to a lengthy five-year term. If it couldn't be assured that Welker would be back at a contract the team was comfortable with, the Patriots were willing to move on at that point with a player whom offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels had worked with in St. Louis in 2011.
Yet even after Welker received a two-year, $12 million offer from the Broncos on Wednesday, a call was made to the Patriots to see if the club would sweeten its offer. The Patriots did not have an immediate response, which led some in Welker's camp to believe a better offer was a possibility in part to keep him away from the Broncos, one of their top competitors in the AFC. Ultimately, the club informed Welker and his representatives that they had entered into another commitment, which Welker's camp assumed all along was Amendola.
So Welker called the Broncos -- who, according to a source, were initially concerned about insulting Welker with their offer because they already had made other financial commitments -- and told them he was on board. While not the offer he was hoping for at the start of free agency, it was easier for Welker to accept it from a team other than one that he'd produced at such a high level for over the past six seasons, the source said.
The initial response that Welker received from Manning, executive vice president of football operations John Elway and others in the organization has been "a great feeling" and given him greater comfort in making the move.
"Elway told him that he wants him to be himself and have fun doing it," the source said.
Welker, who agreed to the deal without visiting Broncos headquarters, is scheduled to travel to Denver on Thursday morning. He had interest from another AFC team offering two years and closer to $15 million, which was the top contract proposal Welker received in a market that didn't unfold the way he and his representatives envisioned, but he didn't pursue it because the club isn't viewed as a contender. The Broncos, who visit the Patriots in 2013, are one of the AFC's top contenders, which was important to Welker.
The turn of events was stunning when considering that the Patriots and Welker had been close on a three-year contract last summer. The gap was about $1 million at that time, according to one source, but neither side would budge.
Since that time, sources from both sides indicated that finding common ground was a challenge. On one side was the feeling that Welker's camp would only accept a three-year term at an average of $8 million per season. On the other side was a belief that the Patriots had basically made one offer and in recent weeks weren't willing to tweak the incentives to try to make them more reasonable to reach.
As for how Welker's departure has been received by quarterback Tom Brady, who last month restructured his contract in order to provide more salary cap flexibility to help the Patriots build a better team, a source who had direct contact with Brady said he is "bummed out." Welker hasn't just been Brady's go-to receiver, he's also one of his closest friends.
But Brady has been through this before, going back to 2003 when safety Lawyer Milloy, one of his closest friends on the team, stunningly was released about a week before the season opener. In 2006, Brady was stung by receiver Deion Branch being traded to the Seattle Seahawks. Brady has said in recent years that if he could make the personnel decisions, all of his friends would remain on the team.
But that's just not the way it works in New England, where Belichick has never been afraid of making an unpopular move, and his relative success in doing so -- and the franchise's consistent winning ways -- has earned him leeway with a passionate fan base that often refers to the motto "In Bill We Trust."
Yet moving away from the 31-year-old Welker, especially considering the surprisingly low financial terms, could put that to the test. Welker, whom Brady referred to as the "heart and soul" of the team in 2012, was one of the franchise's most beloved players.
So this qualifies as one of the riskier moves of Belichick's 13-year tenure, as he replaces a known commodity who was the epitome of reliable and durable with Amendola, a talented player with more long-term upside who has been limited to 12 games over the past two seasons because of injuries.
When it comes to X's and O's, part of Belichick's confidence in taking such a risk is the history of production with slot receivers in the team's offense. Before Welker, fan favorite Troy Brown also put up big numbers in the slot. It's no disrespect to Brown and Welker, two talented players, but Belichick has noted that part of the function of New England's offense sets that position up for big production.
Welker proved that, as no NFL receiver caught more passes over the past six seasons. Now he'll be catching them in Denver, a surprising turn of events that came down quickly with the door closing even as he gave the team one final chance to sweeten its offer.
By that point, the Patriots had moved on to Amendola, a decision that sent shockwaves throughout the region.