Welker proves skeptics wrong again
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – In January, doctors suggested to Wes Welker(notes) that his ripped-up left knee would take about one calendar year to heal. The New England Patriots receiver had torn both his ACL and his MCL. For added fun, he also needed rotator-cuff surgery.
The 2010 season, they said, was all but shot.
“You know doctors,” Welker said with a smile Sunday. “What do they know?”
Welker’s story as an undersized, unwanted everyman who became the most prolific pass-catcher in the NFL was already bordering on saccharine Disney sports-flick levels. Then came Sunday, when he shaved a remarkable three-plus months off the predicted recovery time and returned to action 252 days after his massive injury.
He wasn’t just “back,” either. He was back, immediately displaying the darting speed and slippery form that helped him lead the league in receptions two of the past three seasons. He caught eight passes for 64 yards and two touchdowns in the Patriots’ 38-24 victory over Cincinnati.
Like a bad Hollywood script, the ending was entirely predictable, at least to the people who know Welker. The doctors may have focused on the actual medical tests when predicting a recovery time. Everyone else just considered the name of the patient.
“I knew in February he was going to be back out on the field opening day,” said Brady, who had to overcome his own ACL injury prior to last year’s season opener. “The determination he has is pretty remarkable.”
This is what Welker does: upend conventional wisdom, surprise critics and make the improbable seem like no big deal.
“There [were] different scenarios kind of talked about, like [injured reserve] and ‘save my body’ and different things like that,” he said Sunday. “But that’s just not in me. I can’t sit there and watch my team out there playing.”
He said this in his calm, dry drawl. On the field, he’s a burst of energy. Off it, he’s a laid-back, matter-of-fact, take-it-all-in kind of guy. There wasn’t going to be a lot of look-at-me emotion postgame. Maybe it all still seems so tenuous.
Welker was a prep star in Oklahoma City, a state player of the year, who didn’t receive a single scholarship offer in light of his diminutive size – now listed at 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, then even smaller and lighter. He thought about walking on somewhere. He thought about joining the Navy.
Eventually, another kid backed out of a scholarship with Texas Tech and the Red Raiders took a late flyer on him. He wound up scoring 31 touchdowns for Tech – including eight on punt returns, which still stands as a NCAA record.
It wasn’t enough to attract NFL interest. Forget about being drafted; he wasn’t even invited to the NFL scouting combine. His height and weight were considered so un-NFL-like they weren’t even worth measuring. He was deemed as nothing more than the byproduct of then-Tech coach Mike Leach’s(notes) spread offense.
Welker managed to secure a tryout with the San Diego Chargers anyway, made the team and then was cut after the first game. The Miami Dolphins picked him up as a special-teams player and, over three seasons, began using him more and more as a wide receiver. They were never sold on him, though, and ultimately traded him to New England.
That was 2007, and since then Welker has become the only player in NFL history to catch at least 110 passes in three consecutive years. Last year, he caught 123 – tied for second most for a single season in NFL history.
People stopped doubting Welker, at least until his left knee crumpled as he tried to make a cut in the season finale in Houston. The critics had always wondered how long he could hold up in the NFL. And while the injury didn’t come on a hit, the result was the same. When he returned, they wondered if he would still have the water-bug speed so essential to his game.
Welker cared only about getting back on the field by Sept. 12. He told his doctors as much.
“[They were] kind of like, ‘Well, let’s wait and see where we’re at when we get there,’ ” Welker said. “So I tried to put it in their heads early. … I think when they saw my quad and how all the muscles were the same size as the other side, they were a little bit shocked but at the same time very cautious.”
Welker flew much of his family in for the game Sunday, acknowledging this was a bit of a rebirth. He’s vowed not to take a moment of being a NFL player for granted. When he caught the first pass of the season, the Gillette Stadium crowd roared with admiration. So, too, did his teammates. Then he brought home the first Patriots TD. And then another.
Other than having to wear “a stupid knee brace that I hate and can’t wait to burn,” the day was better than he dreamt.
“It’s kind of a special deal,” Welker said. “[It] was definitely a cool thing.”
Welker isn’t the most feared receiver in the league; he’s just the most frustrating to attempt to cover. He’s found a way to make his size an advantage. His low center of gravity allows him to push away from stronger defenders and create space. He’s a master at avoiding hits and is consistently among the league leaders in yards after the catch.
And, of course, he catches just about everything thrown in his direction.
He’s the perfect complement to Randy Moss(notes), the Patriots’ fast deep threat who “takes the top off the defense” and allows room for Welker to work underneath. Conversely, Welker prevents defensive backs from focusing solely on Moss. The combo will be a handful for the Jets in next Sunday’s early-season divisional clash.
Welker’s loss was crushing to the Patriots last season – the team was listless and ineffective in a playoff loss to Baltimore. Sunday, it looked like the powerhouse of old, with the return of the NFL’s unlikely star raising everyone’s emotions.
Welker would just shrug at all the fanfare. His play was a surprise only to those foolish enough to still doubt him.