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Wes Welker walks away

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New England says goodbye to fan favorite

One could accuse New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick of being a lot of things. Sentimental is not one of them.

Belichick recently continued a long and storied tradition of unapologetically cutting ties with veteran players, either through trades or outright releases. New England stalwarts and legends such as Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Randy Moss, Deion Branch and Adam Vinatieri have all been given their walking papers, unceremoniously dismissed despite still being talented and useful players.

As of last week, you can add wide receiver and borderline folk hero Wes Welker to the list.

All Welker has done during his six-year stint with New England is catch passes. Lots and lots of passes. In five of the past six seasons, he has caught over 110 passes for over 1,000 yards; twice, he caught over 120. He led the league in receptions three times. Even in his 'worst' season 2010 Welker still had 86 catches for 848 yards.

And now he'll be catching passes from Peyton Manning as a member of the Denver Broncos.

Of course, the Patriots already have a replacement lined up. They signed former Rams receiver Danny Amendola to a five-year deal; he'll be plugged into Welker's spot and the offense likely won't miss a beat. Such is the joy of having a high-octane offensive scheme and one of the best quarterbacks of all time.

But it won't be the same.

I understand New England's success over the past decade has been largely fueled by this lack of sentimentality. They long ago established that they are willing to let a player go a bit too soon rather than overpay them to stick around a bit too long. This is nothing new. 

But there has been an undeniable joy in watching the relatively diminutive Welker a man whose 5' 9', 190-pound frame looks even smaller next to the behemoths of the NFL succeed in a game that has for the most part rendered men his size obsolete. His fearlessness in going over the middle is unparalleled, and while he was known to occasionally drop a ball, he held on to the vast majority of those throws despite the full knowledge that he was awaited by an angry linebacker who outweighed him by 50 pounds.

Is Welker's absence going to adversely impact the Patriots offense in a significant way? Probably not. The team has been moving toward a shift in philosophy for a couple of years now, building around their pair of ultra-athletic tight ends. The truth is that with Gronkowski and Hernandez on the field, there will be plenty of opportunities for the slot receiver to make plays regardless of who he is. Amendola is a fine player and will likely put up great numbers of his own so long as he avoids the sorts of fluky, catastrophic injuries that dogged him in St. Louis.

But it is unlikely that the Patriots or any other team in the NFL for that matter will ever again see a run of statistical success like that which Welker has put up over the past five years. Wes Welker's New England career was a perfect storm, a combination of the right player in the right system at a time when football's overall philosophy was changing.

There's no doubt that Wes Welker will put up fine numbers in Denver. He's still a very good player and now he's got something to prove. But Coach Belichick believed that he saw the end in sight, and with the exception of Tom Brady, no player gets paid to grow old in a Patriot uniform. Call it mercenary if you will I certainly do but this should come as no surprise to anyone.

Fare thee well, number 83. The people of New England were lucky to get to know you.


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