Adam Vinatieri sat alone at a picnic table.
It was a chilly, windy, sunny Florida winter afternoon in early 2006. The type of day you don't normally associate with a place known for hurricanes, humidity, spring break and Casey Anthony.
He had just finished a promotional appearance. Fun times teaching fans how to kick gave way to the business at hand, which was the business of football. The crowds had dispersed, as had the local TV stations and the PR types who live for these moments.
Vinatieri's foot had provided the margin of victory in three Super Bowls with the Patriots. They might have even won a fourth if he could have run down Desmond Howard. He had the unconditional love of a fanbase that booed the likes of Ted Williams, Yaz and Roger Clemens over the years. There was no end in sight to this Patriots' dynasty.
There was frustration hidden beneath his smile. The Patriots had franchised him once but did not, by agreement, do it a second time. Free-agency beckoned. But Vinatieri had not made his intentions public. He was ready to express himself, if not literally spell it out. And he did. His time with New England was discussed in the past tense. He spoke of his love of fans and teammates and how the NFL had become a business.
Listening to Vinatieri at that moment, it was obvious what his plans were: It was time to see how much money was out there. The "Patriot Way" collided with Adam's wallet. This was his shot at a big-time NFL payday and way to see what others thought of his talents. Sometimes, after winning three Super Bowls, you want a hug. Sometimes, you want a five-year, $12.5 million deal with a $3.5 million signing bonus.
"You say goodbye and I say hello," especially if I'm heading to Indianapolis.
The Colts snapped him up and put an offer on the table the Patriots would never match, especially since the Patriots felt as if they had gone above-and-beyond with the $2.5 million they had paid the kicker in 2005.
Once the Patriots decided not to franchise Welker, Vinatieri's fate came to mind. There's a tremendous amount of validity to the argument that the Wes Welker situation is just an extended replay of what happened to Vinatieri. And, as Tom E. Curran noted Wednesday on Comcast SportsNet New England, once the Colts realized Vinatieri was available, he was a goner.
Here's the kicker. As luck (and Luck) would have it, the Colts will, coincidentally, be one of the leading front-runners in the Welker sweepstakes. They have more than $45 million in available cap room and a spectacular 2nd-year QB whose arm might even remind Welker of another No. 12.
A large chunk of that cap space is available thanks to the dearly departed Peyton Manning and others. Manning might indeed help the Colts get one more win over New England.
Now think about this, the Patriots refused to play footsie with Vinatieri, who won three Super Bowls for the Patriots and was an unquestioned football hero from Portland to West Hartford. The best Welker could do was make 11 catches against the Giants in the gut-wrenching loss in Super Bowl XLII. And that performance has been washed from our memories by his drop with four minutes to play against the Giants four years later and his big oopsie against the Ravens in this year's AFC title game. The Patriots and their fans have become so spoiled/carry such high expectations that Welker's five 100-reception seasons and the fact that he's the first receiver in NFL history with at least 110 catches in three seasons somehow are not relevant in this debate.
The decision to let Vinatieri walk is still mystifying, although not surprising. Since he bolted from New England, Vinatieri has won more Super Bowls than the Patriots have. The Patriots were at the height of their imperial dominance when they decided not to franchise Vinatieri again and granted him his freedom. They calculated he would come back to Foxborough with his best offer and that no team would come at him as fast and high as the Colts did. Vinatieri put his best foot forward and walked to the RCA Dome.
Unfortunately, Bill Belichick missed Dirty Harry's lesson to Lt. Briggs at the end of "Magnum Force."
Since he became a full-time Hoosier, Vinatieri's added another Super Bowl ring and New England has cringed with each Stephen Gostkowski attempt from outside the 20.
There's a lot of public misdirection going on with Welker. He's staying, he's leaving. One thing is clear, if and/or when Welker decides to test the free-agency market and goes public with those intentions, there will be next to zero chance of him playing for the Patriots next season. The Colts, or another team like the Broncos, Bengals, Seahawks, Eagles, Cowboys, etc. will put enough cash on the table and make him an offer neither he nor Mrs. Welker can refuse. Then there's the whole Jets thing. Given what they did to sign Tim Tebow just to not play him, nothing can be put past Rexy and Friends.
Welker is not your typical 31-year-old future Hall of Fame slot receiver who made 118 catches last season. He's Tom Brady's target of choice in all the toughest situations.
There will be always be a substantial market in the NFL for Tom Brady's favorite target, especially when you can take him away from Tom Brady.
And that's a cost the Patriots aren't likely to bear.
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