Patriots coping with loss of NFL receiving leader
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Wes Welker covered his head with a towel as he was carted off the field with his pants leg pulled above his left knee. It was the last look at the star receiver in a Patriots uniform for this season.
His teammates and coach Bill Belichick were resigned to moving into the playoffs without him even before Welker underwent an MRI on the knee Monday. The team did not announce the results.
“I felt badly for him,” Belichick, who stood next to Welker as he lay on the field, said Monday. “He’s had a great year. It’s unfortunate to see any player have an injury. Wes is a great competitor. And I’m sure that, whatever it is, he’ll work hard as he always does to bounce back.”
Welker’s left leg buckled without being hit as he planted it at the Houston Texans 49-yard line while running after a short reception – his NFL-best 123rd and last of the season – on New England’s fourth offensive play of its 34-27 loss on Sunday. Tom Brady kneeled beside him and Randy Moss hovered over him before he was helped to the bench, where he dabbed at his teary eyes with a towel.
Before the game ended, Welker called his parents in Oklahoma City.
“He’s trying to come to grips with it,” his mother, Shelley Welker, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “It’s just hard. You have all these plans and aspirations and it’s just hard anytime that happens.”
ESPN reported that Welker’s initial diagnosis was torn ligaments. The Patriots did not give details.
“You can’t replace him,” Brady said during his regular Monday appearance on WEEI radio.
Someone will be in Welker’s spot Tuesday at practice for Sunday’s wild-card game against the Baltimore Ravens at home, where the Patriots were 8-0. Brady is 8-0 in home playoff games, but now his only proven wide receiver is Randy Moss. Julian Edelman, a rookie seventh-round draft pick who is similar to Welker in size and style, took his spot as the slot receiver on Sunday and had 10 catches. Sam Aiken, primarily a special teams player, is the third wide receiver.
“We’re going to evolve a little bit as an offense now,” Brady said. “It was a very Wes Welker-oriented offense. Maybe part of the advantage is Baltimore doesn’t really know what they’re going to see from us now. We’re going to have to shift focus and they’re really not sure where that focus is going to go.”
In last year’s opener, Brady tore his left anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments and missed the rest of the season, but has played in every game this season.
Brady has been playing with injuries to his ribs and a finger on his right hand. A Patriots spokesman said he was not aware that Brady had broken ribs as reported by CBS. Brady hinted at the possibility on Monday.
“Everyone breaks bones over the course of the year,” he said. “I’m feeling pretty good. It’s the best I’ve felt in a while.”
But in three of his last four games he’s thrown for fewer than 200 yards with two touchdown passes and three interceptions. He was outstanding the week before the Houston game when he had four touchdown passes and only three incompletions in a 35-7 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Now he must carry on without Welker.
“Going through a knee injury last year was a hard thing for me, but in ways it was a good thing for me. It taught me a lot and I think for Wes it’s going to do the same thing,” Brady said. “He’s as hard a worker as anyone on our team, anyone I’ve ever seen. He’s going to work just as hard through this as he would through the regular offseason program. He’ll be back at some point better than ever. I know that.”
Welker also missed the second and third games this season with a right knee injury and still broke his own club record of 112 receptions.
With the AFC East title already clinched, the Patriots (10-6) were playing for the No. 3 or 4 seed, but Belichick gave his regulars extended playing time. Brady played most of the game, but team rushing leader Laurence Maroney and running back Kevin Faulk were on the inactive list along with starting defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Ty Warren, who were nursing injuries.
That gave the backups extra playing time.
“Everybody got an opportunity to do things in the game and hopefully those experiences will be beneficial to them down the road,” Belichick said.
In Oklahoma City, the Welkers watched on television with a large group of friends. “A lot of people were crying” when her son was hurt, she said.
So was he.
“He’s passionate about anything that he does,” she said. “He’ll laugh the hardest in the room, and he’ll cry the loudest.”