Jerry Rice had a bad two weeks.
The NFL Hall of Famer, greatest receiver ever and current ESPN NFL analyst witnessed his name in the record books demoted three times.
Detroit’s Calvin Johnson eclipsed Rice’s NFL single season record for receiving yards, and Johnson still has a game left to surpass 2,000 yards.
And in consecutive weeks, New England’s Wes Welker claimed two records previously held (or shared) by Rice. Last week Welker became the first receiver with five 100-reception seasons. And on Sunday Welker passed Rice with his 18th career game with 10 or more receptions.
Though Rice’s name is dropping in the history books, his accomplishments remain immortalized in Canton, Ohio at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Will Welker one day have a bronze bust after his career is over?
Earning two records that reflect consistency, and arguably dominance, during one’s career will absolutely help Welker’s cause. But will it be enough to convince the Hall of Fame committee that Welker is worthy of the honor?
Despite holding the five 100-reception seasons record that puts Welker ahead of Rice and Marvin Harrison (the latter with Hall of Fame credentials), Welker’s candidacy isn’t a lock.
If it was based purely on numbers, then Welker would only have to reach a couple of milestones. But Welker still has two observations to dispel.
The first is the perception that he’s a system player. A lot of people still consider Welker just a slot receiver, not a primary receiver. They doubt he would put up similar numbers with a different team and offense.
Ask anyone what is a primary receiver, and they would describe someone about 6’1” or taller, physical and an outside the numbers playmaker that can stretch the field. He’s typically complimented by a Welker-type slot receiver that takes advantage of the extra attention drawn by the primary receiver.
While that’s true for most teams, that has never been the case for Welker. By his third season with Miami, he was second on the team in yards and led the Dolphins in receptions.
Even when Randy Moss was a Patriot, Welker lead the team in receptions the three full seasons they played together. And when Moss was traded, Welker continued to produce, leading the Patriots in receptions every year and in receiving yards since 2010.
If doubters need any more proof that Welker is more than just a system receiver, they need only to look at how the offense struggled in the first two games of 2012 as Welker caught just eight passes.
Since Welker has been reestablished as quarterback Tom Brady’s favorite target, the offense has been rolling.
Welker’s career isn’t due to eating the crumbs left behind by a so-called primary receiver. New England knows the key to the offense’s success is to make sure Welker is first in line and never goes hungry.
A system receiver? Welker makes the Patriots’ system work. Once the non-believers understand this, Welker must take his case to the Hall of Fame committee. Based on the lack of success by previous hall-eligible receivers, Welker will have a tough time getting through the doors.
Andre Reed has been waiting since 2006. Chris Carter has been waiting since 2008. Tim Brown has been waiting since 2010. All three have more receptions, yards, and touchdowns than Welker.
It is also possible today’s NFL will be held against Welker. With teams passing more than ever, Welker might be viewed as benefiting from the league’s evolution to airing it out more.
If that’s the standard being set for Welker, he will have to exceed some of the numbers put up by Reed, Carter and Brown.
If Welker continues to average 111 receptions, he will almost equal Reed in two seasons. Overtaking Reed in receiving yards at an average of 1,228 per season will take four seasons. Catching either Carter or Brown, which is going to take a while.
Another move, though understandably unpopular in New England, would be for Welker to sign a free agent contract with another team. Welker signed the franchise tag with the Patriots despite stagnant negotiations. Unable to reach a long term deal with New England, Welker’s best shot at long term financial security might be with another franchise.
If Welker continues to produce at the same pace for a new team, he could once and for all squash the “system receiver” argument and improve his chances of gaining immortality.
And if Welker’s numbers, when he retires, are comparable to the greats, it would seem likely that Welker will earn that gold jacket and go down in history as one of the NFL’s greatest, and not just the greatest slot receiver.