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Wes Welker, Denver Broncos bargain

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  March 13, 2013 02:59 PM

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They didn't really want him. And in the end, he didn't want them.

Oh, sure, the Patriots would have taken Wes Welker back literally on their terms -- say, two years, $14 million, or whatever the terms of that reportedly longstanding take-it-or-beat it offer happened to be.

[Update: Greg Bedard is reporting it was for two years and $10 million, an insult by NFL salary standards that essentially dared Welker to find something better.]

Based on what we know at the moment, the offer was either an intentional slap in the face, or a miscalculation that had little to do with the actual dollars, and everything to do with respect.

Did they imagine their offer -- apparently singular, impersonal and nonnegotiable -- would frustrate Welker so much that he'd take a cheap deal elsewhere just so he'd never have to deal with them again?

If the reported terms of Welker's new contract with the Denver Broncos are correct -- two years, $12 million, and that's not per year but total -- then no other conclusion can be drawn.

Perhaps it's lost in the shock of his departure -- make that the shock of the price of his departure -- but right now there seems no other logical explanation for this other than Welker's desire to pay back the Patriots for their refusal to pay him.

They thought he would be their bargain. Instead, they drove him to become a rival's bargain.

And like that, the once-perfect marriage between Welker and the Patriots is shattered.

This is what happens when a business-first mentality backfires, when human nature is discarded as irrelevant. The Patriots valued Welker at a certain, specific price, a price much lower than a receiver who averaged 112 receptions per season as a central figure to one of the most prolific offenses the NFL has known would seem to warrant.

If ever there were a time to make a small exception to their rigid salary structure and appease their franchise quarterback who less than three weeks ago restructured his contract to give the Patriots the leeway to do such things as, oh, keep his most trusted target at a slightly higher sticker price than the numbers crunchers might prefer, it's now, in this flat-cap season in which they have roughly $15 million to use on free agents.

They could have done it. It wouldn't have irreparably altered the salary structure. Yet they didn't. They really didn't want Wes Welker anymore, at least not enough to confirm it with cash.

Ten million dollars per season would have been fair given that he made $9.4 million last year. Instead, they offered him two years and a $4.4 million pay cut. You'd be angry too. This isn't the Patriots version of the Ray Allen/Celtics breakup. The Celtics made Allen the best offer.

The whole ugly process drove Welker away, and the thank-you message from Peyton Manning should be arriving at Linda Holliday's Twitter account any moment now.

Kudos to John Elway and the Broncos for playing the waiting game brilliantly and getting a bargain, for Welker will make less in two years than new Miami trinket Mike Wallace will make in one.

The Patriots are not in the business of paying for past performance, and that's almost always smart. But save for some high-profile drops, Welker is still a pass-catching machine in the slot, and anyone who thinks someone such as Julian Edelman or Danny Amendola is capable of matching his production simply isn't giving him his due.

Yet the way the Patriots handled this suggest they're skeptical of future performance even as he's coming off the fourth-best receiving season in franchise history.

They wouldn't give him what he felt he was worth, even if it meant that Welker, his disdain hundreds of degrees past mild at this point, would join forces with arguably the Patriots' chief rival in the AFC next season, not to mention Brady's chief rival as the greatest quarterback of this generation.

Wes Welker, wearing that traffic-cone orange jersey and catching pass after pass in the slot from Manning? Yeah, it's going to take a lot of Sundays before that scene looks right.

But Welker is going to Colorado, and we're left with one more reminder that there's no room for sentimentality beneath the Patriots' salary cap. Bill Belichick again had the cold discipline not to exceed the value he set for the particular player, and I suppose it should be noted that such an approach has generally served him well.

Letting beloved veterans depart unceremoniously has rarely come back to haunt the franchise during their prolonged, almost unfathomable run of championship contention virtually every season in the salary cap era. You want nostalgia?, they seem to ask. Fine, but enjoy going 8-8.

Fiscal responsibility is the price of winning. Veterans they have paid -- Logan Mankins, Vince Wilfork -- had to fight for every dollar, and long-term deals for younger players have inevitably proven bargains (compare Rob Gronkowski's salary to Jared Cook's, or Dannell Ellerbe's to Jerod Mayo's).

But this feels ... different, and not just because Welker is now someone else's bargain.

Maybe it's because the Patriots at the moment have a shell-casing of a receiving corps that must be giving Brady (who must be livid) serious Reche Caldwell flashbacks, or maybe it's because Welker owns the top five reception seasons in franchise history and three of the top five receiving yardage seasons, or maybe it's because it took him all of six seasons to exceed predecessor and 13-year Patriot Troy Brown's franchise record for receptions, or maybe it's because he just seems like a Patriots lifer even if he did have previous stops in San Diego and Miami before arriving here before the 2007 season, but the timing of his departure just doesn't feel right.

It's too soon. There's unfinished business. Welker was part of some great times during his six seasons here, but I don't need to remind you that he never won a Super Bowl. That lack of a title does complicate his legacy, especially because he had game-altering drops in their last two season-ending losses, in Super Bowl XLVI against the Giants and in this past season's AFC Championship defeat at the hands of the Ravens.

It's probably not fair, but my enduring image of him isn't of one of his 672 regular-season receptions, but of him fighting back tears in the bowels of Lucas Oil Stadium, the picture of devastation yet answering every question after the last Super Bowl loss.

Now, there are new images popping to mind, mental ones of him heading toward the mountains with vengeance on his mind and catching Manning pass after Manning pass and getting down low and zipping past defensive backs and linebackers who can't understand how he eludes them.

It was a joy to watch him play for six seasons in New England. Yet in the end, the Patriots were fine with letting him elude them, too. I'll let you know when I fully comprehend why.

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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