On to the Next One

You have a friend. You and this amigo are best friends. You do everything together; you confide in each other, you’re wingmen. For years this friend and you hang out, learn others eccentricities and assist one another through the times.

Then suddenly, boom, you’re no longer friends – not even acquaintances. No texts or calls – they’re as popular as MySpace.

In that hypothetical situation there’s no room for sentimentality and there’s the same amount of loyalty in that relationship as Scott Boras clients and their franchises.

Such is the way of any NFL team. In fact, the word allegiance does not even appear in an NFL lexicon. And that’s a good thing.

The New England Patriots are probably the league’s most exemplary franchise when it comes to embracing this ideology. They are also one of the league’s most complex franchises, hoarding draft picks like they should appear on the TLC show and searching for deals like an extreme couponer. Led by a studious but iron-fisted Head Coach, Bill Bellicheck, the Patriots have made an unprecedented 12-year run at greatness with five Super Bowl trips and three rings.

Similar to a traditional river-boat gambler, Belichick has had his wins with players including drafting a top two Quarterback ever in Tom Brady at pick number 199, signing Running back Danny Woodhead who was cut by the rival Jets, and trading for Randy Moss while only surrendering a fourth-round pick. He has also had his defeats, which are headlined by former Pro-Bowler Defensive Tackle Albert Haynesworth – who failed the fitness test three times en route to being released four months after signing…and, of course, the Chad Ochocinco fiasco.

Another great Belichick “win” was Wes Welker – who he procured from the Miami Dolphins in 2007 for a second- and seventh-round draft picks. For Belichick to give up those draft picks, a player has to know that he’s special. But there were no signs there. Until 2006, in his first three NFL seasons, Welker had served as a third-string receiver and a special teams serf for Miami. He was only reeled in by the Dolphins after going undrafted in 2004 and then was signed – and cut – by the San Diego Chargers. Welker in Miami caught 96 passes for 1,121 yards and one touchdown…in three years. In juxtaposition, Welker surpassed those statistics in all three of those categories in every season since in the NFL besides 2010 when he caught 86 balls for 848 yards, but still that season he had seven touchdowns.

When the Patriots let Welker leave in a rocky way to the Mile High City for two years and $12 million Patriot nation almost revolted. Callers to the New England sports radio station WEEI were outraged that for such a cheap price that New England let a tough, fan favorite, elite slot receiver leave for a top AFC competitor. Even the Mayor of Boston, Thomas M. Menino, will surely miss the great “Wes Weckler.”

(Although it was not his first incident in mangling Boston sports name, “Mumblin’ Menino” referred to other “ionic” figures in Beantown lore incorrectly.  He performed poorly for the C’s with “KG and Hondo,” and congratulated the Pats “Vince Wilcock” on great play last season and the Patriots ability to lock up “Gonk” or “Grabowski” to a long-term deal.)

Permitting “Weckler” to walk out of town was a good move for New England.

Mere hours after letting him leave the Patriots replaced their former five-time Pro-Bowler with a mini-Wes. Mini-Wes is ex-St. Louis Ram Danny Amendola and he, 28, got 5 years $31 million but the same guaranteed cashmoney as Welker with $10 million. Both went to Texas Tech, both are slot receivers, both are under six-feet tall. They’re both southern boys (Amendola’s a Texan and Welker’s an Okie) and both are even with ten pounds of each other. They are doppelgangers, except for two key facts: Amendola’s injuries and Welker’s age.

Welker will be 32 at the beginning of next season, which in the NFL is considered to be nearing the age of eligibility to collect on Social Security, and has shown signs of slowing. His age, coupled with the tenacious, hard-hitting play that slot receivers endure, showed the Patriots their only move was to go with youth. Another thing: there are two big faults with Welker. He led the league in drops last year with 15 and when has he come up with a clutch play at a clutch time? I have nothing.

Injuries and age are no strangers to the NFL and are its greatest fears, even more than losing. Those concerns are the impetus for the ‘next man up’ mantra. Even NFL players realize the plight. When asked about the philosophy, Colts Safety Antoine Bethea explained, “It sounds like a broken record…but if somebody goes down, the next man up has to come in and play ball.”

Amendola’s injuries are spotlighted by a dislocated elbow injury that cost him the entire 2011 campaign. Unfortunately for Amendola, he suffered the ailment during the first game of the season after catching five passes. In the four year stretch that Amendola had been playing on the Rams, Welker also suffered a season-ending blow when he tore his ACL on a hit by (who else?) Patriot Killer, Safety Bernard Pollard. It was merely coincidental (and bad luck for Amendola) that Welker suffered a serious injury in the last game of the season while it robbed Amendola of a year’s worth of production.

Another point for Amendola is that there is a distinct possibility that over the last six years Brady has developed a “security-blanket” mantra with Welker. That if a receiver wasn’t getting open downfield, he’d dump the ball over the middle to number 83. Brady was playing too conservative and Amendola is a better downfield threat than Welker so that gives the Patriots the option – along with Gronkowski and uber-athletic tight-end Aaron Hernandez – to become cyclical with vertical threats and over-the-middle securities. It opens the Patriots offense and makes them, the top rated offense in the NFL last year in points and yards, even more potent.

Both Weckler and Amendola are crisp and accurate route-runners and the move benefits the transfer from St. Louis, Amendola can stop pretending to be a number-one receiver like he was acting as and return to the slot in New England. Their Texas Tech coach says the comparison of the two is unfair because Welker has succeeded so much more at this stage of his career, although Amendola had Sam Bradford and Welker had Brady…and certainly that isn’t a fair comparison.

So before any Pats fans complain about losing Wes, must they be reminded of the Dolphins. In the Bill Belichick era, the turnover has been substantial and he has shown no semblance of morality as he trades or releases veteran, fan favorite Pats…and then triumphed. There was Lawyer Milloy, a beloved, hard-hitting strong safety who was released just prior to the 2003 NFL season. Milloy signed with AFC East-foe Buffalo and led them to a 31-0 romp over his former team. From there all New England did was go 17-1 en route to their second Super Bowl title in three years. If not Milloy, then Deion Branch. Ty Law. Richard Seymour. Randy Moss. Adam Vinateri. All Patriots legends who they ended up being fine without. A passage from the Bill Belichick playbook: no player is more important than the team – everyone is replaceable. So when will New Englanders put on their dollar bills, “In Bill We Trust?”

Also, as successful as Welker has been in New England (672 catches for 7459 yards and 37 touchdowns) he has not won what symbolizes success the best. He has not put a ring on his finger and he has not hoisted the Lombardi trophy. So even if Amendola does not average 110 catches every year, if he can be a key instrument in an orchestra once again playing a championship Overture, fans would be “wickahd happy” and would ask, “Wes who?” All Amendola needs to do is his job.

What the Patriots got in Welker-lite is youth (by four years), control (five years compared to two), and cap space ($6 million per year either way). The only worry in New England about Patriots football should be the ability of Mayor Menino to pronounce “Amendola.”

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