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Wes Welker, Troy Brown, and the end

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  September 18, 2012 02:27 PM

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There have been so many cherished memories to tuck away since 2001, so much to remember, rewind and replay that a Patriots fan's gauzy recollections may mislead from time to time, one highlight colliding and melding with the next. The Sabols can only document so much, you know? It's up to us to retain the rest, and even with some painful hiccups in recent years, we're blessed around here that there are so many impossibly great moments of which to keep track.

So it would be perfectly understandable if -- brace yourself for a goofy hypothetical -- that guy in the crisp blue No. 83 jersey the next tailgate over Sunday insisted that Wes Welker and Troy Brown were teammates for one very good year, perhaps two, possibly three, while your buddy in the red No. 80 throwback was adamant that the extraordinary slot receivers never shared space on the roster at all, being players of the same position, similar skill, and entirely separate seasons.

welkerwesfinn918.jpg.JPGYes, our personal recollections of time and place may vary, but the record does not lie, and so it is that pro-football-reference.com reminds us that Welker and Brown were teammates for one season and played together for precisely one game.

The year was 2007, the one of offensive brilliance, near perfection, and ultimate disappointment. It was Welker's first year in New England, having been the bounty in an intradivisional heist in which they stole the frequent Patriot nuisance from the inept Miami Dolphins for second- and seventh-round picks. It was also his first as a bona-fide star, his bond with Tom Brady almost immediate and stunningly effective. He caught a franchise-record 112 passes, breaking the mark set by Brown six years earlier.

For Brown, the season was his victory lap, essentially a season-long honorary roster spot for a player who wasn't ready to say goodbye and still had something to offer off the field if not on. He saw the field for one game, two days before Christmas, in a 28-7 win over the one-win Dolphins. He didn't catch a pass, but returned six punts, one for 28 yards (he fumbled another).

It was a respectful way to treat a franchise cornerstone in his final season, similar to how Kevin Faulk, the Brown of running backs, was treated last year.

Goofy hypothetical and hackneyed literary devices aside, most of us probably do remember that Brown and Welker were teammates for that single season. Brown's performance had actually begun to naturally decline before Welker arrived -- from 2003-06, his annual reception totals had landed between 17 and 43, and his greatest contribution to the '04 champs might have come as a Hank Poteat stunt double at defensive back -- but the succession plan was officially implemented in '07.

While much of the credit for their success goes to Brady, the relationships have been mutually beneficial. There's probably not a quarterback in league history who has been fortunate enough to have two such smart, talented, tough slot receivers in his huddle over the course of his full career. I imagine if Brady swapped his usual diplomacy for candor he would admit Welker is the superior receiver -- he does hold the top four spots on the franchise's single-season receptions list and set the yardage record last year with 1,569 -- though one wonders whether he might prefer Welker in October but Brown in January. As far as I know, no quarterback's supermodel wife ever criticized Brown's hands.

The similarities between Brown and Welker, the feats they've accomplished and the respect they've won, sure made for a strange juxtaposition Sunday. While Brown, who was inducted into the franchise's Hall of Fame Saturday, was treated like last year's homecoming king returning home from college to a warm reception and that old familiar revelry, Welker was inexplicably being marginalized. He might have spent Sunday as a wallflower on the Patriots' sideline had Aaron Hernandez not been knocked from the game on the offense's third play from scrimmage.

While he didn't play as many snaps as perennial project Julian Edelman, who started ahead of him for the second straight week, Welker was enough of a factor that, in a coincidental confluence of place and timing, he surpassed Brown's franchise record for career receptions. With five catches for 95 yards Sunday, he now has 562 receptions as a Patriot, five more in his five-plus seasons here than Brown had in 15 years.

It should have been cause for celebration. Instead, it was an afterthought, lost in the mire of an ugly 20-18 loss to the underestimated Cardinals and the controversy surrounding Welker's initial role as a bit player. After what I saw at Gillette Stadium Sunday, I do believe Welker is deliberately being marginalized.

I have absolutely no idea why.

If it's for purely a football reason, I wish Belichick would explain it -- right, good luck with that -- not only to hear the fascinating reasoning and to learn something, but because it was also put a halt to all of the conspiracy theories filling the airwaves and clogging my Twitter feed.

I refuse to believe Belichick would be so petty as to diminish Welker's playing time because of his contract status or his limited play in preseason or because he got hair plugs and endorsed adult diapers, or because of that damned drop in the Super Bowl.

But Belichick is not going to say much beyond the standard, "It is what it is. We do what's best for this football team,'' and so we're left trying to solve the mystery ourselves. That, too, tends to lead us down dead ends in the maze, where we find more contradictions than conclusions.

I do believe Belichick will recognize any subtle decline in Welker's skills long before you, me, or even Welker himself will, and maybe he's seen something.

I don't believe that Welker at 31 years old will decline much in one offseason from the receiver who had 22 more receptions than any other NFL player last season, who had those 1,500-plus yards, who had a career-high in yards per catch (12.9) and scored nine touchdowns.

I do believe they need him, desperately so with Hernandez on crutches, and diminishing the role of someone who seemingly gives them a better chance of winning now, in Tom Brady's age-35 season, is shortsighted even if it gives them a better read on whether Edelman is a worthy heir.

I don't believe that Welker will get the graceful farewell, that the stage has been set for him to move elsewhere just as Lawyer Milloy, Richard Seymour, Ty Law, Willie McGinest and many others did when their salaries exceeded their usefulness by Belichick's accounting.

I do believe, like Troy Brown before him, that he deserves one.

About three years from now.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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