Small scale model
Welker current standard for scrappy receivers
FOXBOROUGH - There are Wes Welkers everywhere. He is the scrappy receiver on the high school football team. Or he is the smallish player with bursts of quickness hidden among his college teammates.
Find a football team, and you’ll likely find a coach who can point out the team’s Wes Welker. In the land of wide receivers, Welker has become a brand. His physical traits, football skills, and quick moves have been packaged into a mold, and the Patriots have the original.
Welker is in his eighth season and is leading the NFL with 31 receptions and 458 yards as Tom Brady’s favorite target. The sight of his 5-foot-9-inch frame dodging defenders has become familiar to Patriots fans. The more he has flourished in the offense, the more popular he has become.
“Yeah, it’s happened quite a bit,’’ Welker said. “When I left [Texas Tech], my coaches would say, ‘He’s a Wes Welker type of guy,’ and everything like that. So it’s kind of everywhere now, which is cool.
“It’s good to see and hopefully it shows that you don’t have to be huge and big or anything like that to be a good receiver in this league.’’
Before Welker, there were others in the mold of the small but quick receiver. Watching Welker reminds Hall of Famers Raymond Berry, Frank Gifford, and Lynn Swann of players from their past.
Berry thinks of Tommy McDonald, a fellow Hall of Famer who played most of his career with the Philadelphia Eagles. Gifford sees Cosimo Cutri, his teammate at Southern Cal in the 1950s, in Welker’s skill set. Swann compared the relationship that Welker and Brady have to that of Mark Duper and Mark Clayton with Dan Marino in the 1980s.
But the most popular reference point for many when they look at Welker is Hall of Fame receiver Steve Largent, who played 14 seasons (1976-89) with the Seattle Seahawks. The two are native Oklahomans and have met on occasion.
Largent, a former Congressman who is now president and CEO of CTIA-The Wireless Association, can see the similarities.
“Sure, I hear it all the time,’’ Largent said. “I think a Wes Welker player is a type of player that is a tough player, runs good routes, secures the ball, and doesn’t make a lot of mistakes.
“But what does that exclude? It’s the same type of thing they said about me all the time, too. He’s not going to set the world on fire running the 100-yard dash.
“They used to say with me, ‘He could play in a phone booth,’ meaning I could get open and do things because I was quick, but not necessarily fast, and I think the same is applicable to Wes.
“He’s a guy that gets the job working the middle of the field, and is real secure catching the ball, and maybe most importantly, he has the confidence of his quarterback.’’
Never discouraged A trusting quarterback, a confident coach, and a pass-heavy offense equaled the right combination for Welker, who was traded to the Patriots from the Miami Dolphins in 2007.
While Welker had success with the Dolphins, he reached another level with the Patriots, falling into a system that poured out points and yards. Since his arrival, he has registered 463 receptions and 4,994 yards.
“He is just a great player and has been that way since the day he got here,’’ Brady said. “Every day at training camp, he never misses a day. He is just a tough, hard-nosed football player.
“You can never underestimate someone that’s worked the way he’s had to work because he hasn’t had all the opportunities that maybe a lot of other guys had early in his career, and he realizes that. He still works as hard today as he’s ever worked. I love being out there with him.’’
Welker may have not had the height or the large frame, but he never felt discouraged from playing football. At Heritage Hall High School in Oklahoma City, he was a running back and defensive back and was named the Oklahoma Player of the Year in his senior season.
He carried on his career to Texas Tech, where he played four seasons and left in 2003 as the school’s career leader in receptions (259) and receiving yards (3,069).
Welker didn’t have much of a plan after college. He just wanted to pursue football. NFL teams didn’t show much interest, though, and Welker went undrafted. He eventually signed as a free agent in 2004 with the San Diego Chargers.
“I knew I had a chance to at least see what I could do,’’ Welker said. “I didn’t know if I’d make the team or what would happen or anything like that leading up to the day before cuts. I had a good preseason. I didn’t know what was going on.’’
The Chargers cut Welker in September 2004, and six days later, the Dolphins signed him.
In the right place Berry can relate to Welker’s story. He used to wear special shoes because one leg was shorter than the other. He conquered a number of hurdles before establishing himself with the Baltimore Colts (1955-67).
“I’ll bet you Wes Welker has the same exact DNA as I did,’’ said Berry, who as Patriots coach (1984-89) led the team to the Super Bowl for the first time. “It’s not a matter of proving anything.
“When you’re 21 years old and you come out of college, you get the chance to play football and you just love the game. At that stage of your life, there isn’t anything else on your agenda, and when you get to play, it’s one of the better deals going. He plays like he loves the game.’’
Welker may be a smart and technical receiver, but Swann said his success is a byproduct of the Patriots’ system.
“If you were to stop for a moment and close your eyes and see a Wes Welker route and see Tom Brady throwing the ball, everything seems to fit like a custom-made suit,’’ Swann said. “You put that suit on somebody else - no matter how good the material is and how well it’s put together - it just doesn’t fit.
“So you’ve got the right skills coming together on all sides, and certainly the willingness for the team to throw the football.’’
That fit is what makes Welker so valuable in the Patriots system. Against the Bills last week, he posted a franchise record 217 receiving yards and matched a team-best with 16 receptions in the 34-31 loss.
While the record-setting day didn’t equal a victory, it was an example of how Brady can find Welker under a variety of conditions. Some quarterbacks may need a receiver to have a step on a defensive back, others just need a glimpse of light.
“Different guys create different separation different ways,’’ Brady said. “Wes uses his quickness a lot of the time and you see he gets a lot of separation because he is so good in and out of his breaks.
“Taller guys, some don’t get as good a horizontal separation because their vertical length and their catch radius . . . they could be open even if the DB is a lot closer.
“Wes doesn’t have that, so he’s got to be open and he’s got to get some separation and he does that. That’s what his quickness really allows him to do.’’
Mind over matter Brady and Welker have been able to develop a chemistry, but not all quarterbacks would be comfortable with a smaller target, Gifford said.
“It’s a big tribute to Brady, too,’’ Gifford said. “He could complain about his size, but he’s used it to his advantage and recognized his talent.’’
The best athletes may be the ones who never view themselves as having a disadvantage, Largent said.
“Here I was, described as small and slow, but a lot of times, those terms are relative and not consequential,’’ he said. “I don’t ever remember wishing I was bigger or faster when I was running to catch a ball.
“You can’t afford to think of yourself in that way, either. And I don’t think he does.’’
Welker’s reputation includes toughness, which he displayed in 2010 as he returned to the field months after having surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in the regular-season finale in 2009.
He made his way back to play in 15 regular-season games and returned this season saying he felt the best he has in his career.
Whatever milestones Welker reaches in his career, he may need time to put it all in perspective, Largent said.
“It’s very hard, because all you’re thinking about is the next game,’’ Largent said. “You don’t have time to think about the bigger picture because you’re so focused on what you’re doing that week.’’
Not everyone needs such time. When Berry summed up how much he enjoys watching Welker play, he ended by saying, “He’s a classic.’’