Wes Welker’s dropped pass might have sealed the Patriots’ fate, and he knew it
INDIANAPOLIS – By late Sunday night Wes Welker had to know he was going to be blamed for this Super Bowl loss. His hands are so reliable, always sure to wrap around Tom Brady’s passes, and they deceived him at the worst possible moment. So he stood in the middle of the New England Patriots’ locker room in a blue plaid shirt, hands on hips, his eyes burning through a wall in front of him.
How could he drop that fourth-quarter pass? He never drops passes. Especially when he’s wide open and the end zone is just 20 yards away. He’s always been as certain as anything in the NFL at times like that. And to have the ball hit his hands and fall to the ground? It might have been a touchdown or would have led to a field goal or something, anything that may have kept the New York Giants from defeating the Patriots again in a Super Bowl.
He shook his head. He kicked his foot at the carpet.
An NFL public relations man who was assigned to take Welker to an area where the game’s key players conduct interviews leaned close to his ear. He asked Welker if he was ready to walk to the interview area and Welker nodded softly. He said nothing else and slowly they stepped through the locker room, out the door and down the long concrete tunnel where victorious Giants players ran past, with white championship T-shirts pulled over their shoulder pads.
Of all the Patriots, Welker seemed the least likely to be taking this walk. He was always the overachiever. Back in high school he played offense and defense and even kicked field goals. He was the star at Texas Tech who no one believed could play in the NFL because he was only 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds. Yet he eventually made it with the Miami Dolphins and the Patriots because he was the receiver everyone could trust, the one who would never drop a pass that mattered. He led the NFL with 122 catches this season.
Now he had to stand in the interview area while the league officials decided where he should sit. They had small booths set up for the interviews and each booth had a number. Finally they chose one. No. 3. But as he walked into the area, someone pushed him toward booth No. 1. He shrugged. What difference did it make? The questions were going to be the same no matter what booth he was in.
“It’s one of those plays I made 1,000 times,” Welker said.
“The ball is right there,” he continued. “I’ve just got to make the play. It’s a play I’ve made 1,000 times in practice and everything else. It comes to be the biggest moment of my life and I don’t come up with it. It’s discouraging.”
“Just trying to make an adjustment on the ball and it’s a play I’ve got to bring in,” he added.
“Yeah it hit me in the hands,” he admitted. “I mean it’s a play I never drop. I always make. Most critical situation and I let the team down.”
Then he stepped down from the booth.
He still stared straight ahead. His eyes seemed to focus on nothing. The loss wasn’t his fault, of course. The Patriots were winning, 17-15, with 4:06 to play when he missed the pass. Far too many other things went wrong for New England. Brady took a safety on the game’s first play from scrimmage. Eli Manning led the Giants on an 88-yard scoring drive after the drop. There were other passes that weren’t caught. But Welker’s drop will be remembered as one of the worst in Super Bowl history mostly because the man who did it is one of the most dependable receivers in the league and was wide open at the time it happened.
Had he grabbed it, the Patriots might have been able to stretch their drive another two minutes, and even if it had resulted only in a field goal they might have eaten enough time to make it impossible for Manning to take the Giants anywhere.
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The catch was hard to make. Welker had to twist his body while running and reach above his head for the ball. But it hit both his hands and was a play he usually makes, the kind of play the Patriots made in their three Super Bowl wins and the kind of play they haven’t made in two Super Bowl losses to the Giants.
“That’s very unfair,” safety Patrick Chung would later say of the suggestion that the defeat was somehow Welker’s fault. “There are four or five big plays in the game and we just needed them to be made by us.”
Even later Brady would say: “I’ll keep throwing the ball to him for as long as I possibly can. … I love that guy.”
But it’s not likely any of this was going to make Wes Welker feel better on the night he dropped the surest thing that might have come his way in weeks. He started to walk out of the interview area but had no idea where to go. He looked at the public relations man and asked how to get to the bus. The public relations man was unsure. He asked another public relations man and that man grabbed a young security guard wearing a red jacket and pushed him toward Welker.
“Take him to the bus,” the public relations man said.
And Welker and the young security guard walked together out of the interview area and back into the concrete corridor where the Giants players were still running down the hall and fans yelled their names. At one point another security guard directed them to stand against the wall so more Giants could run by. Welker watched as the Giants players passed him. He didn’t say anything.
The young security guard assigned to Welker glanced at the player walking beside him. He thought Welker looked sad.
“You know you had a great season,” the young security guard said to Welker.
“Don’t get down,” the young security guard added. “You make a lot of great plays.”
“Yeah,” Welker grunted.
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As they approached the first of the three Patriots’ motor coaches – Miller Trailways bus No. 9261 – the young security guard smiled at the most famous man he has probably ever walked beside.
“It was nice to meet you,” he said cheerily.
“You too,” Welker replied politely.
Then he stepped onto the bus. Back in the locker room his equipment bag was still unpacked, a white bathrobe still dangled from its hanger. His nameplate – usually a souvenir all players try to keep – sat above his locker. It looked as if he was still coming back.
But on the night he let the sure pass bounce off his hands, he just wanted to get as far as he could from the Super Bowl.
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