PHOENIX – Wes Welker didn't tell anyone what he had planned.
Not his coaches. Not his teammates. Not even Graham Colton, his best friend and quarterback since they first learned to throw and catch a ball.
It was the beginning of the second half against rival Millwood High in Welker's junior season at Heritage Hall High in Oklahoma City. Heritage Hall was on its way to a state title, but trailed by four points at halftime against a team loaded with Division I recruits, including future first-round draft pick Rashaun Woods.
During halftime, coach Rod Warner and his staff had laid out the strategy, which revolved around the defense stopping Millwood after the kickoff.
Welker, who served as kicker in addition to being the safety and running back, had a different plan. He went for an onside kick and recovered it himself, helping propel Heritage Hall to its first undefeated season.
"He would just see something and do it, not tell anyone. He probably did that three times when we were in school. Not tell a soul, do it and make the coaches look like geniuses," said Colton, Welker's rock singer buddy who hopes to perform at a show here Saturday night.
Just as in his prep days, Welker doesn't do much talking with New England. That's a fine fit on a team that preaches an all-business approach. And just like in high school, he's making his coach look like a genius.
Last offseason, New England coach Bill Belichick approved an aggressive trade with the Miami Dolphins to get Welker. The Pats gave up second- and a seventh-round picks for Welker, a guy who went undrafted out of college and essentially unrecruited out of high school. In addition, the Patriots gave Welker, then a restricted free agent, a reported four-year, $19 million contract.
It was the first of three big moves the Patriots made this offseason which have combined to make them the most prolific offense in the history of the NFL. After Welker, the Patriots signed Kelley Washington and Donte' Stallworth as free agents, then finished the receiver overhaul with Randy Moss in April.
While quarterback Tom Brady, with his record 50 touchdown passes, and Moss, with his record 23 touchdown catches, have been the show, Welker has been the stunning supporting actor. His 112 receptions tied for the NFL lead. He also led the league in yards after the catch, an unofficial-but-critical stat.
Welker, who was little more than a return man and No. 3 receiver with the Dolphins for three years, even received a vote for Associated Press Offensive Player of the Year (Brady won it) and made second team All-Pro. Pretty lofty stuff for a guy who managed a scholarship at Texas Tech only after another recruit went elsewhere.
"It's taken Wes a long time for people to understand how good he is," Warner said. "It's like when the college coaches would come around and say, 'Well, how fast is he?' I'd say, 'What does it matter how fast he is? How many football players do you have because that's what he is – a football player.'"
That all sounds prophetic these days, but the bottom line is that when you're 5-foot-9 and not overwhelmingly fast in a game that feeds on bigger and faster, it's hard to turn the critics into believers.
It takes awhile for people to notice that you're too quick to be covered in the small areas underneath the coverage of the defense, particularly when you're put in the slot. It takes awhile for coaches to notice that you're always in the right spot at the right time and that you play every down as if your feet and hair were being scorched by volcanic flow.
"Sometimes you have to see guys play live to really appreciate what they do, how competitive they are and how hard they play," said Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson, whose team gave the Patriots fits during a 31-28 loss in Week 12. Welker played a vital role for the Pats with 13 receptions for 149 yards, both season highs.
"We went into that game with the goal to take away Moss and Stallworth and we did that pretty well. But then Welker just keeps making play after play, moving the chains, keeping drives going. … You see him on film and you figure you can handle him. Knowing what I know now, we'd pay more attention to him now."
In that game, Welker defined his role better than at any other time. He worked the short parts of the field, getting open quickly for quick throws from Brady, who was avoiding the various blitzes Philadelphia ran at him. Welker was stunning after the catch.
"It takes everything you can do to cover him in that 10-yard area," said Baltimore Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, whose defense faced the Patriots a week later and held Welker to three catches. "He has those short, choppy steps and great balance, so he gets great separation on patterns right away even though he's not the fastest guy in the world.
"You better have somebody one him who's going to work just as hard as he is."
Therein lies the problem. Welker is relentless, smart and intriguingly versatile. In high school, he played practically every down, leading the team in tackles as a safety and often reading dive plays so fast that he'd make the tackle before the linebackers. On offense, he and Colton were so in-tune with each other that they could change plays at the line of scrimmage without much help from the coaches.
"The smartest football player I've ever had. He could read coverages so well that he and Colton could get us in the right plays, figure out who was going to cover him or what spot in the zone was going to be open for him," Warner said.
With Miami, Welker showed those smarts in other ways. On three occasions with the Dolphins, Welker would escape potentially bad kickoff situations by putting one foot out of bounds and one in bounds before catching the kickoff. By rule, the ball would be put at the 40-yard line instead of the Dolphins either getting cornered for a bad return or the ball skipping into the end zone for a touchback.
"That's a lot harder play than it looks because you have to have the judgment really quickly," former Dolphins special team coach Keith Armstrong said. "It happens really fast with the coverage coming at you. I wouldn't teach that play to just anybody because a lot of guys can't do it right. Wes picked it up right away after I pointed it out. You don't see it much, but he did it perfectly every time."
Not exactly surprising for a guy always looking for an edge.
"He's so unbelievably competitive," Colton said. "It's like when we were kids. It was never negative or boastful, but he wasn't always trying to do better than you. If you did 10 chin-ups, he was going to do 20. It was like that all the time, every day."
Why is Welker, the middle-class son of a phone company engineer and a nurse, like that? Why did he push himself so hard in high school games that Warner sometimes had to call timeouts after touchdowns to let Welker throw up before he kicked the extra point?
"He'd return a punt 50 yards for a touchdown after playing defense. He'd be so spent he'd tip his helmet back, throw up and then he'd be OK," Warner said.
Welker shrugs his shoulders and gives one of his typically brief responses.
"I just play hard, do whatever I can to help the team," he said. "I've just tried to be like that ever since I started playing."
That's the other problem for Welker. In a game where look-at-me personalities get rewarded, Welker practically sprints from the spotlight. After one game this season, Welker was being interviewed by NBC's Andrea Kremer. Before Kremer could finish, Welker looked off to the side, claimed Belichick was looking at him and quickly excused himself.
At another point, Welker cut off a locker room interview in similar fashion. His quotes over the season read like the best of Belichick, a series of general comments that amount to less than zero in total content.
"That's Wes, he's just a worker," said Armstrong, who used to have Welker run the players-only meetings on Fridays to go over the special teams plan for the upcoming game when they were in Miami. "He comes to work, does his job and doesn't say much,"
Sometimes, he says nothing at all.
- Heritage Hall
- Graham Colton