Wes Welker caught four passes for 24 yards in the Broncos' 41-24 win over the Raiders. It was not a terrible game—just an invisible one. Welker's first catch was a screen that lost two yards, his second a routine five-yarder over the middle that a backup tight end could have handled.
Only once, when covered in the slot by a linebacker deep in Raiders territory, did Welker display the scamper-into-the-flat, tiptoe-up-the-sideline possession receiver skills that made him Wes Welker for the previous seven seasons.
Welker also had invisible games this season against the Jets (one catch, eight yards) and Chargers (two catches, five yards). He was all too visible against the Patriots: three catches on eight targets, a dropped pass early (well-contested by the defender, but the kind of catch that made Welker a favorite target for Hall of Fame quarterbacks) and a volleyball tip that turned into an interception late.
When Welker does make a catch these days, he's more likely to stumble to the turf immediately than knife upfield for those extra three or four yards. That makes a big difference for a player who has always done his best work within a few yards of the line of scrimmage.
Welker admitted his production was off before the Patriots loss.
"It's kind of strange being, I feel like, the weak link of our offense," he said (via The Associated Press).
A suspension and a concussion kept him out of action early in the year. A back injury, sustained during that tip-drill interception against the Patriots, may have slowed him on Sunday. It's not like Peyton Manning has been hurting for weapons this year, so there is no need to force passes to Welker. But the receiver is still a starter who plays 45 to 70 snaps per game, and the Broncos have needed his production in losses and narrower-than-necessary wins. Welker has been a complete non-factor since his 13 combined receptions against the Seahawks and Cardinals in Weeks 3 and 5.
To be blunt, Welker has gotten old, and it is time for the Broncos to move on. The 33-year-old, always reliant on nifty-shifty quickness in the middle of the field, has lost a little of the agility that made him special. He is now in steep decline, and while the Broncos are so weapon-laden they can use Welker as a 3rd-and-3 specialist and decoy, they must worry more Patriots-caliber games are coming.
The Broncos drafted Indiana standout Cody Latimer in the second round. Latimer is 6'2" and can fly. He arrived in the NFL with a good-head-on-his-shoulders reputation and has impressed coaches throughout camp and early-season practices. There was much talk about using Latimer as a red-zone specialist early in the season, and he was expected to get some opportunities during Welker's suspension, but Latimer did not see any significant action until the end of the Raiders blowout. It's time for Latimer to get some on-the-job training even though his opportunities will come at the expense of Welker.
It's hard to move on from a veteran of Welker's pedigree. Welker had 73 receptions and 10 touchdowns last year. He caught 18 passes in the playoffs, adding a crafty pick play that drove the Patriots to distraction. Welker's five 100-catch seasons in six years are still fresh in our minds. He's a security blanket in the slot, someone who can make micro-adjustments to his routes to suit his quarterback's tastes.
But the Broncos can no longer afford to waste pitches to Welker for no gain or a loss of two. They cannot allow linebackers to cover the slot receiver without fear of getting burned. If Welker remains in the slot on 1st-and-10 (when a five-yard pass is as good as a run) or 3rd-and-2, fine. On 3rd-and-10, they need to get their dynamic rookie ready for the playoffs, for 2015 and for that rapidly approaching moment when Welker is too slow, bobbly and banged up to justify a regular role.
The search for Bears who care
The decision to move on from Welker should be relatively easy for the Broncos: It's compartmentalized, there is an obvious replacement on the roster and the adjustment is more of a playoff tune-up than a complete overhaul. Other teams face much tougher decisions.
The Bears proved Sunday night they have problems no closed-door meetings or corporate retreats in the wilderness can fix. Even if everyone on the roster stops going through the motions and pretends to like one another again, the window of opportunity for the current veteran roster has been nailed shut. The Bears must consider making a full commitment to rebuilding and roster evaluation as soon as possible; it will blow the stink off the last month of mumblecore football and put the organization on better footing entering 2015.
There's a problem with going to Marc Trestman's offensive bench in search of prospects, though: There is only one real prospect on Trestman's bench.
Rookie running back Ka'Deem Carey has been limited to mostly mop-up duty after one impressive 14-carry, 72-yard effort when the Bears still cared in September. Carey's inactivity makes sense, since Matt Forte has been one of the few veterans to maintain his dignity over the past month. Carey deserves a well-defined role—he rarely gets more than one or two meaningful carries in a game—and the Bears need to both evaluate Carey and protect Forte from getting fed to the furnace in a lost cause.
The prospect cupboard is bare at the other skill positions. When camp standout Marquess Wilson went on the IR in August, Trestman turned slot duties over to Santonio Holmes, who seems to have spread the Jets Zombie Indifference Plague to Chicago. Journeyman Josh Morgan is the No. 4 receiver, and 30-year-old career backup Dante Rosario plays behind Martellus Bennett at tight end. The Bears may want to decrease their dependence on the obviously disenchanted Brandon Marshall, who caught five of his eight passes on Sunday after the Packers built a six-touchdown lead. They should at least be seeking new playmakers in slot and situational roles. But there are no prospects to promote.
The situation on defense is easier to sort out. Lance Briggs returned from injury to play terribly Sunday night. He ostensibly brings "leadership," but Sunday's team looked as well-led as a pack of lemmings. Jay Ratliff had a massive game against the Dolphins but has been quiet ever since. Jared Allen looked like a wise addition in the offseason, when the Bears were giving their defense a high-priced, playoff-hopeful makeover. Now, he's a 32-year-old mercenary with one sack.
Allen can rush the passer on 3rd-and-15, Ratliff can stuff the run on 4th-and-inches and Briggs can handle the pregame speeches. It's time to get Khaseem Greene, Ego Ferguson, Will Sutton, Jon Bostic, Christian Jones and any other youngster on the bench more snaps. That process has already started, if only because injuries and repeated blowouts have been giving young players increased opportunities.
The elephant in the Bears locker room is Jay Cutler, whose backup (Jimmy Clausen) is not going to inspire any quarterback controversy sonnets. Rookie David Fales, currently on the practice squad, played a full preseason game against the Browns and demonstrated he is not ready with a 13-of-24, 146-yard effort. Cutler's brand new contract further guarantees that he will not be going anywhere for at least another year. Marshall is also locked in by cap strictures until at least the end of 2015. Both Cutler and Marshall can still be productive, of course. But to what end?
The Bears have dug themselves a very deep hole. That makes it vital for them to prepare to make tough, unpopular decisions as soon as possible; sentimentality will just prolong the agony.
Sorting out the touches in San Francisco
The 49ers returned to their roots on Sunday. Frank Gore led the team in rushing, Anquan Boldin got most of the targets and Vernon Davis was on the field for almost every offensive snap. Gore and Boldin each scored touchdowns, Michael Crabtree pitched in some late-game heroics and the 49ers engineered a tough road win against the Saints. There were plenty of two-tight end sets and power runs, with limited appearances by Brandon Lloyd or the empty backfield set. Sunday's 49ers looked a lot like the 2012 and 2013 49ers.
The 49ers appeared to take the advice I laid out in an article last week. The team was trying to do too much by using four-receiver sets, resulting in sacks and offensive confusion. Unfortunately, the results of the 49ers' rediscovery of cloud-of-dust football are much more mixed when you look carefully.
Davis had a miserable game, with just one eight-yard reception on four targets. Boldin dropped several passes. Gore looked great early, then provided a steady diet of one- and two-yard runs in the second half when the 49ers craved clock-killing production. Crabtree's 51-yard catch to force overtime masked the fact that he caught just two other passes for 11 yards on eight total targets. Tight end Vance McDonald and fullback Bruce Miller blocked well in their expanded roles but produced zero yards of their own.
Gore and Crabtree are in the final years of their contracts. Davis' contract expires in 2015. Gore and Boldin are the old-timers of the core group, though Davis is now 30 and has some hard mileage. (Boldin is 34; Gore is 31, but is 90 in running back years; Crabtree is 27).
Moving on is about more than age, particularly for a contender that is trying to sustain success. One reason the 49ers offense has been so schizophrenic this year is its need to keep veterans both healthy and happy with their touches and make the tough decisions necessary to prepare young players for increased roles.
Carlos Hyde must step up for the 49ers to insulate themselves from Gore's slow-but-noticeable decline, but Hyde's role remains ill-defined. He was invisible from Sunday's game plan before gaining 27 yards in three carries in overtime, a weird usage pattern for a team that used two-back rotations to sustain leads over the last three seasons. Hyde has been used as a goal-line specialist and change-up back this season, with limited success in each role. Hyde should not replace Gore in the starting lineup, but a coherent 10-touch role would help him develop and give the 49ers the kind of 1-2 punch late in games that Gore and Kendall Hunter provided last season.
The situation is murkier at wide receiver and tight end. The 33-year-old Lloyd and 27-year-old Stevie Johnson don't make the 49ers any younger when they step onto the field. Rookie Bruce Ellington began playing an offensive role before getting hurt against the Saints, but the 49ers tie themselves in knots trying to get Ellington involved in a meaningful way. Fake reverses only do so much to help a player develop. Third tight end Derek Carrier played very well when Davis was hurt, catching nine passes for 105 yards in limited action. But there are only so many snaps and formations to go around, and the 49ers already use too many of them.
While Gore, Boldin and Davis are all older, Crabtree is the starter the 49ers may want to de-emphasize in future game plans. Johnson is only about a year older and has been far more effective this season. Ellington gives the 49ers a quick, darting dimension when he is on the field. Crabtree produces too many 1-13-0 (on four targets) and 4-27-0 (on seven targets) stat lines for a starter. Unlike the less-productive Davis, he does not provide blocking or matchup versatility.
The 49ers still have sifting to do on offense, even after a big win that almost turned into a crippling loss. There is little chance the 2015 49ers will look like the old Gore-Davis-Crabtree-Boldin team; Gore won't be re-signed, and Crabtree may not be, either. The 49ers should not wait for a mass exodus. They must keep making adjustments so that they are in the best position to win in January 2015.
Rebuilding with (or without) Adrian Peterson
Reports that the Vikings are unsure what to do about Peterson ("divided" says Ian Rapoport of NFL.com; "bet on him returning," says Jason Cole of B/R) make sense: The Vikings should be torn about what to do with their controversial 29-year-old superstar when he is reinstated.
Peterson is due to make $42 million over the next three years, though most of that is monopoly money. His salary cap hit becomes manageable (about $2.4 million) if he is cut in the offseason, which is why there was speculation this would be Peterson's last season in Minnesota before child abuse allegations arose in September.
The Vikings are a rebuilding team that could use both cap space and cash. Peterson is a high-mileage running back with over 2,000 carries on his odometer. He remains a potential public relations nightmare. What organization wouldn't want to at least have a productive debate about the merits of wiping the slate clean?
Peterson's return will make the Vikings better in the short term, and at 4-5, Minnesota could still conceivably ride a short-term boost into a wild-card berth. But the Vikings have spent much of this season moving on from Peterson, and they cannot let that progress be derailed by his sudden reappearance. Peterson's return cannot mean Jerick McKinnon gets moldy on the bench while Teddy Bridgewater hands off 30 times per game.
Peterson could have provided scaffolding when Bridgewater made his first starts, but his value in that role has been minimized now that McKinnon has emerged and Bridgewater has started growing into his role. Instead of helping young players develop, Peterson could actually get in their way.
If Peterson is reinstated, he should split carries roughly 50-50 with McKinnon, with dibs on the short-yardage and goal-line work. He can aid the offense's development without disrupting it in that kind of 15-touch role. The Vikings should then release Peterson in the offseason, perhaps floating a radical contract restructuring as the first option. Peterson will land on his feet with the Cowboys, Raiders or Redskins.
The Vikings can continue building around their new nucleus with no emotional or economic ties to the past. The Vikings were probably going to do that anyway. Peterson deserves due process and some sort of verdict, but for the Vikings, all of the reinstatement drama amounts to an expensive half-season rental.
Moving on is never sentimental. It takes courage. It can backfire. But it must be done. Stick with a former superstar for even a few weeks too long and a team can regret the decision for years.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.