FOXBOROUGH — This should have been a banner day in the career of receiver Wes Welker.
With a red-jacketed Troy Brown being inducted into the Patriots’ Hall of Fame and watching from Robert Kraft’s booth, Welker broke Brown’s record to become the all-time receptions leader in Patriots history with his 558th catch.
But instead of celebrating the remarkable career of Welker, we were left to ponder how much of it might be left.
After the Patriots’ absolutely stunning — and, really, inexcusable — 20-18 loss to the Cardinals Sunday at Gillette Stadium, there can be no doubt: Welker was set to be phased out of the Patriots’ offense.
Whether that was short term, or for the rest of the season, we don’t know. And it was likely rendered moot in the wake of the serious right ankle sprain that could sideline tight end Aaron Hernandez for at least a month.
But let’s not forget what transpired in the first two games of this season.
Welker likely won’t.
It was difficult to get a read on what was going on with Welker in the opener against the Titans, when he played 62.7 percent of the snaps.
Outside the second series — when it appeared Welker was benched for Julian Edelman after dropping a pass — most of Welker’s 25 missed snaps could have been explained by any number of legitimate reasons.
For one, now that Brandon Lloyd is here and a true “X” receiver on the boundary, Lloyd is going to get all the snaps in formations that call for one receiver. Whether that’s one back and three tight ends, or two backs and two tight ends, Welker is going to the bench on those plays. That’s going to happen.
Maybe the Patriots wanted to manage Welker’s snaps. He wasn’t quite as productive the second half of last season when he played nearly 90 percent of the snaps. Maybe Welker could be better at the end of the season if he played more along the lines of the 76, 73, and 75 percent of snaps he did the previous three seasons, according to ProFootballFocus.com. That would be a smart move by the Patriots. Welker is 31.
The other factor is even though Edelman is not a household name, he deserves more playing time. He had a terrific training camp. He’s more dynamic with the ball in his hand after the catch than Welker — though Welker is still elite at beating man coverage. And Edelman can’t play any position in the offense other than Welker’s spot, so Edelman should get a few snaps thrown his way.
All of those factors could have combined to explain the season opener.
But what happened Sunday was altogether different when it came to Welker.
People will look at the second half and see how much Welker was on the field. He did play 64 of the 81 snaps (including a penalty and the 2-point conversion attempt). That’s 79 percent. Certainly a healthy amount.
They’ll look at the 11 targeted passes thrown his way — second only to Lloyd’s 13 — and the five catches for 95 yards. And they’ll think nothing has changed.
Oh, but it did.
Edelman played 92.6 percent of the snaps (75 of 81).
Not only did Edelman start the game (the only time Welker didn’t start last season was against Dallas when Deion Branch got the nod) with the opening personnel grouping of Stevan Ridley, Rob Gronkowski, Hernandez, and Lloyd, Welker didn’t enter the game until the fourth play — after Hernandez was injured. And the first two passes of the game (Tom Brady’s interception, and a bubble screen) were plays that targeted Edelman.
And the most irrefutable evidence about the Patriots’ plans for Welker came in the “12” personnel of one back, two tight ends, and two receivers. As long as Gronkowski and Hernandez are healthy, this is the Patriots’ base personnel grouping.
The Patriots played 15 snaps of “12” personnel. Edelman played 13 of them as the No. 2 receiver. Welker played two. It used to be the other way around. The four other plays Edelman came off the field for had two-back, two-tight end sets.
If Hernandez was not injured, you really have to wonder how much Welker would have played in the game. He clearly was not part of the game plan going in.
“You know, you want to be out there,” Welker said. “I think as a competitor and everything else, especially on Sundays, it’s what we play for and what we work for and you want to be out there. At the same time, coach [Bill Belichick] felt like whatever was best for the team and I’m for that and I totally understand that and I’m just there to help out however I can.”
Belichick wasn’t asked about Welker after the game, not that he would shed any light on the topic.
“We did what we thought was in the best interest of the football team,” is the standard line from Belichick on everything.
Brady was asked if he was on board with Edelman playing ahead of Welker. After an extended pregnant pause, Brady said: “That’s always Coach’s decision, who’s out there. That’s not really my decision.”
Brady didn’t hold back when asked about Welker breaking Brown’s record.
“He’s a phenomenal player and when he makes plays, it really sparks our whole offense and he made a bunch of them today,” Brady said. “That’s what we need.”
Edelman was asked if it makes things awkward in the receivers room that he’s getting Welker’s snaps.
“You know, we just all come in here and, speaking for myself, do what the coaches tell us to do,” he said. “Whatever that is, that is. I’m here to contribute to the team and if that’s getting snaps, if that’s playing special teams, it’s whatever they say. All I’m going to do is take the coaching and try to contribute to this team.”
So now that we know Welker took a seat on the bench for Edelman the first two weeks, the big question is why?
Maybe Welker is dealing with an undisclosed injury. League sources said that is not the case. And if he was dealing with some sort of lingering concussion, does 20 plays really make a difference? Welker denied health is a factor.
“No, I feel great,” he said.
Maybe the Patriots think Edelman is better than Welker. That’s certainly a decision that Belichick is entitled to make. Maybe the Super Bowl play is still fresh in the mind of Belichick. A drop in Tennessee didn’t help. And Welker also dropped a big third-down play against the Cardinals that preceded a blocked punt that set up a touchdown that gave Arizona a 13-9 lead in the third quarter.
Maybe the Patriots know Welker is gone after this season, so they’ve decided to use the early part of the season to see what they have in Edelman, who is also a free agent after this season.
If the Patriots like what they see, perhaps they would be open to trading Welker before the deadline on Oct. 30. They’ve done it before (Randy Moss). The Patriots can get something for Welker now and determine what team he winds up with. If the team waits until after the season and doesn’t tag-and-trade him, Welker would be free to sign with any team, including those in the AFC East, and the Patriots would get a compensatory pick in 2014.
Those reasons, even though many won’t agree with them, are legitimate.
The other possibility is not.
The Patriots could either be punishing Welker for not accepting the team’s offer of a contract extension, and/or trying to hold his production level down so he won’t draw a big contract on the free agent market. That would increase the team’s chances of retaining him.
To do that to a player who has done everything asked of him and more, including playing at well less than 100 percent in 2010 after ACL surgery, would be beyond vicious and vindictive.
So let’s not even go there.
In the wake of Hernandez’s injury, we might not have to. We’ll have to wait and see how things play out.
The Patriots tried to phase Welker out, but now they likely need him. It’s funny how things work out like that.
Maybe we’ll end up having that celebration for Welker after all.