He's a perfect storm of person, player and story: clever, candid and quick-witted off the field, a four-time All-Pro on it and a stranger-than-fiction combination of rags-to-riches fairy tale and bromance-novel love triangle.
He had a perfectly fine season by most standards: 73 receptions, 778 yards and 10 touchdowns is nothing to sneeze at. Welker was also part of the most prolific scoring offense in NFL history with the Denver Broncos.
He even had to step over Tom Brady and the New England Patriots to get to the Super Bowl.
But as Dan Shaughnessy of The Boston Globe wrote, there were questions about his past. His two concussions and subsequent use of a special oversized helmet, his controversial pick play in the AFC Championship Game, his crucial drop in Super Bowl XLVI and his apparently rocky relationship with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.
There were quite a few reporters at Welker's podium:
But it was a tiny fraction of the horde that gathered for Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman:
Where did Welker's dream season go wrong? Did his dream season go wrong? Or were we expecting too much in the first place?
A Perfect Fit
When Welker signed with the Broncos, I thought he'd be a perfect fit, especially for the two-year, $12 million price:
He’s quick, runs sharp routes and is more than tough enough to go over the middle, weave through defenders and make catches in traffic. He’s also got the route-running ability and deep speed to get open downfield against quality cornerbacks, further enhancing a vertical element of the Broncos' passing game that was already a major threat with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker on the outside.
You couldn’t get a better player, a better fit or a better contract. Executive VP John Elway and the Broncos hit this one out of the park.
Not only was the fit in Denver great, but Welker defected from one side of the epic Tom Brady/Peyton Manning rivalry to the other.
An anonymous source close to Brady told Yahoo! Sports' Michael Silver last March that the quarterback would "feel like he's been pierced in the heart" on learning of Welker signing with Denver. Seeing Welker respond—and if Brady might miss him on the field—was a huge storyline.
In Week 1 against the Baltimore Ravens, Welker delivered with nine receptions on 11 targets for 67 yards and two touchdowns. In Week 2, though, he caught only three of his eight targets, and his role in the offense began to diminish.
A Disappointing Drop
With at least 100 receptions in five of the prior six seasons, Welker entered the 2013 season as the NFL's most perennially productive receiver.
But as Mike Klis of The Denver Post put it before the season, Welker's numbers were sure to shrink as he took on a different role in a new offense with an outstanding array of pass-catchers.
"Peyton Manning may be the one of the best quarterbacks of all time," Klis said, "but if he wants to keep his passing game diversified, he can't dish 94 catches to Thomas, 85 to Decker and 112 to Welker in the same season. Somebody has to take fewer."
Sure enough, Welker's average targets per game, receptions per game and yards per reception were all significantly down from his recent years with the Patriots.
"(The catches) are not the goal," Welker told Klis at the time. "The goal is to go out there and help your team win games. However many catches that is, however many blocks that takes, however many routes I've got to run, whatever."
There's no doubt Welker helped the Broncos win. In 2013, they scored an average of 7.8 more points per game than in 2012. Instead of getting bounced in the first round of the playoffs, they're in the Super Bowl.
However, Manning threw the ball 659 times—more than any other quarterback this season—setting all-time records in yards (5,477) and touchdowns (55). It's one thing for production to dip due to multiple targets, but Welker was a perennial 100-catch guy. This season, the numbers make him look like he was, at best, Manning's No. 3 target.
|Broncos Receiver Production, 2013|
Just as Klis predicted, all three top receivers couldn't match their 2012 reception numbers. Yet, Thomas and Decker did exactly that. All of the shrinkage came from Welker's stats, down 45 catches from the year before. In fact, Welker caught just eight more passes than tight end Julius Thomas, and Thomas gained more yards and scored more touchdowns.
After scoring nine touchdowns in the first eight weeks of the season, Welker managed only two in the subsequent seven games (including playoffs). Most of his red-zone production went to Thomas, and his battles with late-season concussions made him an afterthought.
If You Can't Say Anything Nice...
Two of the most anticipated games of the NFL season were the Broncos' Week 12 game at New England and the rematch in the AFC Championship Game. If there were two games this season tailor-made for Welker to make an impact, those were it.
However, he totaled 13 targets, eight receptions, 69 yards and zero touchdowns. He also made headlines for the wrong reasons in both.
In the first matchup, he dropped a couple of key late-game passes and screwed up a clear-out call on a punt return in overtime that set up the game-winning field goal for New England.
In the AFC Championship Game, Welker had a quiet day at the office—that is, until a quasi-legal pick play he ran knocked Patriots cornerback Aqib Talib out of the game. There was no penalty or fine assessed, but that didn't stop New England head coach Bill Belichick from declaring it "one of the worst plays I've seen" in his news conference.
In the Super Bowl, he's got a chance to make amends, although it's not just poor play from earlier this season where he must redeem himself.
Arguably Welker's worst moment as a professional came in his last Super Bowl, when he stone-cold dropped a critical 2nd-and-11 pass late in the fourth quarter, helping bring about a Patriots loss.
The drop helped inspire Brady's wife, supermodel Gisele Bundchen, to famously complain to the media, per ESPN New York's Mike Mazzeo: "My husband can not f****** throw the ball and catch the ball at the same time. I can't believe they dropped the ball so many times."
Despite everything, Welker said Brady is "a good friend," according to NESN during media day.
With a star turn in a Super Bowl XLVIII victory, Welker can answer all of these questions, get critics off his back and be the clear-cut winner of last season's nonstop drama.
A Window of Opportunity
But how can Welker come up with a big-time performance when he's the fourth option in the offense? Let's take a closer look at those receiving numbers, this time with all stats divided by number of games played:
|Denver Broncos Receiver Production, 2013|
|Pro Football Focus|
As you can see, Demaryius Thomas, Decker and Welker each averaged close to 8.5 targets and 5.5 catches per game. Incredibly, Manning found a way to spread the ball around evenly.
The big difference was their average yards per reception. Welker averaged 10.66 in 2013, close to his career average of 11.1. Yet Thomas and Decker averaged 15.54 and 14.8, respectively. All three wideouts reached double digits in touchdown receptions, with Thomas leading the way with 14. Decker and Welker had 11 and 10, respectively.
Tight end Julius Thomas had about two fewer targets and one fewer catch than the top three wideouts, but his productivity in touchdowns (12) and average yards per catch (12.1) both exceeded those of Welker.
What does this all mean?
Welker wasn't nearly as invisible as it seemed to many this season, and he's getting just as much opportunity to produce as any Broncos pass-catcher. As a clear slot receiver on a team with two outside threats, it's not a surprise that Welker wouldn't frequently be hitting the home run. However, he'll be perfectly positioned to succeed against a Seahawks defense most famous for its aggressive secondary.
Welker will likely see a lot of reps against nickel corners, safeties and outside linebackers—and even with the exceptional Seattle defenders, that should mean plenty of opportunities to get open and make plays.
All that's left for Welker to do is make them.