Craig: Welker still NFL's toughest player

Aug 24 2010 - 6:40pm

Images

(Winslow Townson/The Associated Press)
New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker catches a pass during a joint football practice with the New Orleans Saints in Foxborough, Mass.
(Winslow Townson/The Associated Press)
New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker catches a pass during a joint football practice with the New Orleans Saints in Foxborough, Mass.

With six snaps in the middle of August, New England Patriots receiver Wes Welker proved again he's the toughest player of any size in the NFL.

So go ahead and call them the six most important snaps of the 2010 preseason.

Six snaps that came seven months and 17 days after Welker tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and the medial collateral ligament (MCL) in his left knee. Six snaps that came six months after surgery to repair those injuries and, oh yeah, a torn rotator cuff as well. Six snaps when most of us assumed Welker would miss the first six regular-season games while on the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list.

"If you know him," teammate Julian Edelman told reporters, "you wouldn't expect anything different."

Welker spent four days on PUP. Four. He wanted to play in New England's preseason opener last week, but the coaches wouldn't let him. Finally turned loose on Thursday night in Atlanta, Welker looked every bit as good and gritty as the guy who led the league with 123 receptions before being injured in the regular season finale last year.

Welker caught two passes over the middle, a place he loves and Randy Moss avoids. One catch went for 6 yards before a linebacker leveled him. The other catch went 14 yards.

There would have been a third catch, but Welker was drilled on a bubble screen when Moss whiffed trying to block cornerback Christopher Owens.

Welker was out of the lineup quickly, but not before sending a message to the rest of the NFL -- particularly the HBO-hyped New York Jets -- the Patriots still have a certain level of toughness to them.

Humiliated and pushed around at home in last year's playoff blowout loss to Baltimore, the Patriots opened Thursday's game with a focused, balanced and physical touchdown drive that started with six consecutive passes and ended with six consecutive runs. New England ran 30 times, passed 29 and won 28-10.

A year ago, the Patriots were a team that was shockingly soft on defense and relied too much on the pass. The defense still has a lot to prove, but as quarterback Tom Brady said, the Patriots "can control the whole game" if they can run the ball effectively.

Getting Welker back this early is a bonus that keeps the Patriots in the picture in the AFC East. Of Welker's 123 catches last season, 71 (57.7 percent) resulted in a first down.

"I've worked my tail off this whole offseason," Welker told reporters.

Meanwhile, Welker's speedy return makes one wonder even more about Vikings receiver Sidney Rice and what the heck's going on with his hip. We're told Rice's injury happened in the NFC Championship Game, but he never had it fixed and he seemed fine at the June minicamp.

"Everybody's bodies are not the same," Rice said. "Some people recover faster than others."

Rice, who's still on PUP, said his availability for the Sept. 9 regular-season opener in New Orleans is "up in the air." Welker will be on the field when the Patriots play the Bengals three days later.

 

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