by Christopher Price
Tom Brady doesn’t list his lucky number in the Patriots’ media guide, but it’s a safe bet the New England quarterback is partial to 83.
When Wes Welker arrived in a deal for a pair of draft picks on March 5, he was given No. 83. It was the same number (and locker) as Deion Branch, who had been dealt away at the start of the 2006 season. Branch and Brady were real tight, and when Branch — his favorite receiver — was traded to Seattle in September 2006, the loss hit the New England quarterback hard. Brady and Branch had the sort of relationship quarterbacks and wide receivers dream of — the two were able to communicate in shorthand, exchanging signals with nothing more than a series of quick glances. It paid off when Branch was named MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX, finishing with 11 catches for 133 yards in New England’s win over Philadelphia.
But in his short career in New England, Brady and Welker are establishing a relationship that will lead to Welker likely surpassing anything that Branch did in his four years in a Patriots uniform: In 11 games this season, Welker has a team-high 81 catches to go along with 878 yards receiving and seven touchdowns. In his best season with the Patriots — 2005 — Branch finished with 78 catches for 998 yards and five touchdowns.
There’s a new No. 83 in town, and his name is Wes Welker.
“I think that he’s a really good player,” wide receiver Donte Stallworth said of Welker. “He knows how to play, and having a guy like that on the team is fun. He’s always going to do his job, and you can rely on him.”
Welker and Branch are very similar: Both were relatively unheralded coming out of college — Branch was the 11th wide receiver taken in the 2002 draft out of Louisville, while Welker was signed as a rookie free agent by the Chargers out of Texas Tech before being released and picked up by the Dolphins. The two are undersized overachievers (both are 5-foot-9). And both of them would run through a wall for Brady.
“Tom doesn’t lose any sort of poise or anything,” Welker said after Sunday’s game. “The dude is on top of it.”
Welker’s receiving numbers are impressive, but his biggest impact has been when it’s come time to move the chains. Forty-eight of his 81 catches this year have gone for first downs, tying him for eighth in the AFC entering last night’s action. That puts him in a neighborhood with traditional go-to guys like LaDainian Tomlinson, Chad Johnson, Randy Moss and Reggie Wayne.
Much of Welker’s overall impact on the New England offense can be traced to the presence of Randy Moss. Throughout much of his career in New England, Branch was asked to be the No. 1 receiver, while Welker is usually the third option in the passing game behind Moss and Stallworth. But at the same time, with so many opposing defenses now geared toward stopping Moss, it has been Welker who has stepped up and made the plays when called upon.
“I think you have to be ready for it every time you step on the field,” Welker said of the opportunities. “I think that’s what all of us try to do on the offensive side of the ball.”
He was at his best Sunday night. On an evening where the Eagles were able to mostly neutralize Moss but the Patriots still wanted to pass first, Welker was a reliable presence underneath. He ended up with 13 catches and 149 yards, both career highs for the Oklahoma native.
His star turn came midway through the third quarter when he gathered in a quick screen from Brady and took it 42 yards down the near sideline to the Philadelphia four. Picking up a convoy of blocks along the way, he maneuvered neatly downfield, allowing offensive linemen get out ahead of him to create a path.
Learning how to successful execute a screen pass is a tricky thing for a receiver or running back — you have to have the requisite amount of patience to make it work.
“Those are tough. You just have to trust the offensive linemen getting out there,” Welker said. “They do a great job on screens and things. You just have to have that patience to stay behind them and, in some situations, you have to go. But I felt like that situation, I could get behind them and get a solid block.”
Despite the big numbers, there were some missteps for Welker, including a dropped pass in the second half that will haunt him … until he steps on the field Monday against the Ravens.
“There are still a few plays that I feel like I left out there — and I won’t be able to sleep tonight because of those,” he said late Sunday. “But, there are things I can get better on and do a better job on next time.”
FIVE THINGS TO LOOK FOR THIS WEEK
1. Troy Brown. At his daily press conference Monday, Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick promised some news on the veteran wide receiver sometime Tuesday. New England must make a decision on what to do with him this week — either activate him, release him or place him on season-ending injured reserve. If they activate him, the short list of potential candidates who might be asked to wave farewell, at least temporarily includes wide receiver Chad Jackson (who would be placed on season-ending IR) or fullback Kyle Eckel (who would likely join tight end Marcellus Rivers on the unofficial shadow roster).
2. If the Patriots shuffle some of their movable parts along the offensive line. The o-line has been a strength through much of the season for New England, but right tackle Nick Kaczur has struggled lately, allowing four sacks over the last three games. He allowed a pair of sacks to Indy’s Robert Mathis back on Nov. 4, as well as one to lineman Juqua Thomas and another to linebacker Chris Jocong against Philly on Sunday night. The Ravens are not the pass-rushing terrors of old (they have just 22 sacks this season, with linebacker Terrell Suggs leading the team with four), but are still capable of bringing enough heat for the Patriots to consider going to backup right tackle Ryan O’Callaghan.
3. If the beef between Ray Lewis and Adalius Thomas is truly over. The two were involved in a memorable war of words earlier this season over Thomas’ comments about how much things are different with the Patriots as opposed to the Ravens. It appears things are now cool between them — Thomas told the NFL Network recently that “its water under the bridge” — but it still bears watching.
4. The Ravens’ offense. “Anemic” would be a kind way to describe this year’s Baltimore offense. They’ve managed just 182 points through 11 games — to provide some sort of context, offensively-challenged teams like Miami, Tampa Bay and Oakland have all posted more points this year. During their current five-game losing streak, they’ve been outscored 143-72. In a 32-14 defeat at San Diego on Sunday, Baltimore managed only 210 yards and committed two turnovers. Ravens quarterbacks have lost 10 fumbles, and the team has a minus-11 turnover differential. Don’t look for it to get any better this week — Head Coach Brian Billick told reporters yesterday that he intends to stick with Kyle Boller at quarterback.
5. Talk of Brian Billick’s job security. The one-time boy genius who led the 1998 Minnesota Vikings’ offense into the record books as a coordinator is now a man fighting for his job. Billick and owner Steve Bisciotti have engaged in some public disagreements over the last few seasons — including one two years ago where Bisciotti demanded Billick transform his management style and become less confrontational with the media. The 4-7 Ravens are in the midst of a five-game losing skid — if Baltimore doesn’t finish strong, he could be out the door.
STAT OF THE WEEK
3. According to Metro Boston’s Jeff Howe, only three active offensive skill position players have failed to score touchdowns for the Patriots this year — wide receivers Chad Jackson and Kelley Washington and No. 3 quarterback Matt Gutierrez.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“Usually, when I get hit — I’m very bony, so if they hit me on my bones it hurts. If they don’t hit me on my bones I’m usually fine. I’m like Gumby, I just dead-leg everything. That’s why I just fall down when people hit me.” — Quarterback Tom Brady, discussing his process for absorbing a hit.
Christopher Price is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the Patriots since 2001 for Boston Metro. He’s served a contributor to ESPN.com, SI.com, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post and The Miami Herald. He’s written “The Blueprint: How the New England Patriots Beat the System to Create the Last Great NFL Superpower,” and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.