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More missing than just Welker

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  January 4, 2010 10:07 AM

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As Bill Parcells long ago told us, players play. That’s what they do. In the wake of a devastating knee injury to Wes Welker, there is really no point in wondering whether Welker should have been out on the field at all yesterday when his knee buckled.

The Patriots have been through this sort of thing before and they have rallied, which is really the point. This team either will or it won’t. The 2001 Patriots won the Super Bowl after leaving Terry Glenn behind, and the 2006 Pats reached the AFC Championship Game after losing Rodney Harrison. In the case of the latter, Harrison was hurt in a relatively meaningless Week 17 affair on a crack-back block by Titans wide receiver Bobby Wade; early in the fourth quarter of that chippy affair, with the outcome in doubt, Tom Brady was pulled.

So now Welker goes down with what was essentially a non-contact injury, stripping the Patriots of a man who has indisputably been their most valuable player this season. The Pats now must find a way to derail the Baltimore Ravens without their "slot machine" –- Welker has been so dubbed by colleague Bob Ryan –- and we all know what Welker meant to a New England offense that's still on a never-ending search for its identity.

Simply put, if the Patriots lose this game, there is every chance that Welker’s absence might be a factor. But if the Patriots fail to win the Super Bowl, it will have far more to do with the structural problems of their entire football operation than it will with the breakdown of Welker’s left knee.

Decisions, decisions, decisions. Teams make them all the time in professional sports, and the ramifications are considerable. Oftentimes, one cannot help but wonder if luck is the single greatest factor in determining success. Bill Belichick could just as easily have sat Welker as he might have punted on fourth and 2, and we might all feel differently about this team right now if he had done both. There is also the very real possibility that the Patriots would be precisely where they are today, the wildest of wild cards entering the tournament.

In the end, at times like this, focusing on the consequences of any decision is pointless. Going in, we generally know what the possible outcomes were. More relevant is the predicament that led to the decision, which speaks to longer-term issues or decision making that might be questioned.

For example: Fourth and 2. Regardless of whether the Patriots succeeded or failed, the more relevant issue is that Bill Belichick got to a point where he didn’t trust his defense to make a stop. Maybe this began in the AFC Championship at Indianapolis three years ago, maybe it was magnified last season. Whatever the case, the Pats reached the point where their coach felt he could not beat the Colts by a 20-3 score, as New England did in the 2005 AFC divisional playoffs, albeit in wintry Foxborough. Back then, the idea of engaging the Colts in a shootout would have seemed preposterous.

The week after that game, the Patriots went to defensive-minded Pittsburgh and blew out the Steelers with a 41-27 victory that was hardly so close. From week to week, the Pats won with offense, with defense, with special teams, with talent and with coaching. You named the game and they beat you at it.

How does all of this pertain to Welker? If the Patriots were so reliant on him that his absence will now destroy their Super Bowl hopes – however slim they were – then they probably weren’t championship material to begin with. As such, there is simply no point in using his injury as any kind of excuse. In a sport like football, a 5-foot-9-inch, 190-pound slot receiver should not be the difference between ultimate success and failure.

For all that Welker accomplished this season, he finished with just four touchdown receptions. He did not reach the end zone, on this side of the Atlantic, after a 59-0 drubbing of the Tennessee Titans at Foxboro on Oct. 18. He scored just one touchdown this year in a true road game, that coming in a 20-17 loss at Denver.

Today, the Patriots will begin preparations for this weekend’s game against the Baltimore Ravens at Foxborough. Julian Edelman looks like the obvious choice to replace Welker in the New England offense. Including training camp, the Patriots are now roughly six months into their season, meaning they have had ample time to figure out exactly who they are and prepare for every possible situation.

At this stage, no matter who is healthy or hurt, you are either ready or not.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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