- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 2, 2008

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Wes Welker — W.W. Could there be a more perfect receiver for a football team that has won every one of its games? Not that the Patriots gave much thought to that when they shoplifted Welker, then a restricted free agent, from the Dolphins last spring. His initials could have been L.L. for all they cared as long as he could catch passes, block linebackers, return kicks, boot field goals in a pinch and contribute in the many other ways Wes does. (For that matter, he could have been LL Cool J.)

The Pats’ acquisition of Welker is one of those classic football pickups. They couldn’t stop him when he was in Miami, even when they double covered him, so they hired him at the first opportunity. What they didn’t know — what no one knew — is that he was even better than they thought, a nascent NFL star hiding in an Arena Football body.

Giants defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who has to come up with a way to contain Welker in tomorrow’s Super Bowl, says, “I’m trying to go back in my memory bank and think of another guy who’s like him, and I can’t. He’s unique.”

With his dashing, darting and skittering, Welker is also helping to change the game. Indeed, by the time he retires, slot receiver will probably be an Actual Position on the Pro Bowl ballot, separate from wideout. And deservedly so. Slot men have become that important in the offensive scheme of things.

How important? Well, put it this way: In this week’s Sports Illustrated puzzle, the answer to “11 down” is “Moss.” The clue: “Alternative to Welker.”

That’s right, folks, future Hall of Famer Randy Moss, who set an NFL record this season with 23 touchdown receptions, is being described as an “alternative” to a 5-9, 185-pound slot guy who wasn’t even drafted coming out of Texas Tech — heck, wasn’t even invited to the scouting combine.

Yes, life has changed quickly for Welker. After all, he didn’t grab a pass until his third NFL season, and it wasn’t until last year, when he had 67 catches for a bad Miami club, that he began to dream bigger dreams, began to envision being more than just a jack-of-all-trades type.

“I’ve always had confidence in my ability,” he says, “regardless of what anybody else said. “But then I had kind of a breakout season — and I felt like I could done even more [had the offense not been hamstrung by Joey Harrington’s quarterbacking]. I was really anxious for this season to start, to get back to work and try to get better.”

In his first year in New England, only his second as a full-time player, Welker caught 112 balls to break Troy Brown’s franchise mark. He has been just as big a factor in the playoffs, scoring a touchdown in both games — while Moss, attracting all kinds of attention, was being held to a single reception in each.

The Patriots’ three- and four- and five-receiver sets — with Moss wide to one side and another burner, Donte Stallworth, wide to the other — have been paradise for Welker. As Josh McDaniels, the offensive playcaller, explains it, “There’s a big emphasis on speed [in the league]. When you’ve got fast players on the outside, the cornerbacks sometimes need extra help from the safeties. And that opens up things on the inside for slot receivers, tight ends or backs coming out of the backfield.”

And let’s not forget, Spagnuolo says, “When [Welker] can shake and rattle and get himself loose [underneath], it’s an easier throw for the quarterback.”

In the Patriots’ offense for the ages, Moss and Welker have become the modern day Mr. Outside and Mr. Inside. What makes No. 83 truly special, though — and much favored by Bill Belichick — is his embrace of all aspects of the job. If he’s not using his punt returner’s peripheral vision to turn a 5-yard hook into a 10-yard gain, he’s sealing off running lanes for Laurence Maroney or Kevin Faulk.

“Whether he gets the ball or doesn’t get the ball,” says Belichick, “he’s been a factor on a lot of plays.”

Which raises the question: How did everybody miss on Welker? He was tremendously productive in college, breaking Texas Tech receiving records and even setting a national mark (since tied) by running back eight punts for TDs. And yet he was dismissed as too small, too slow — and maybe even too white. Let’s not kid ourselves. The receiver spot has been dominated by blacks for decades. (You could argue that Steve Nash had to deal with the same stereotyping in the NBA.)

Also, the 2003 draft was particularly deep at wideout. Seven of them, the most ever, were taken in the first round. Undaunted, Welker signed a minimum-wage deal with the Chargers — and later, with the Dolphins — and went about proving the scouts wrong. People, he says, have been telling him he lacked size and speed “pretty much since birth.” So he’s always tried to “play fast and play big”; that is, to outhustle and out-physical his competition.

And look at where it has gotten him. He’s catching passes now from Tom Brady and playing on one of the best teams of all time, a team with a shot at a perfect season. In fact, when you stop and think about it, Welker is the very embodiment of lunch-pail Patriots: a player who is so much greater than the sum of his parts.

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