When the New England Patriots offense first took the field against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, they did so without their leading receiver from their previous five seasons. But Wes Welker wasn't injured. He stood on the sideline as Julian Edelman took his place as the team's starting wide receiver opposite Brandon Lloyd.
The box score will show that Welker ended up playing 63 of the 82 offensive snaps and led the Patriots with 95 receiving yards on five catches. But he didn't enter the game until the team's second possession -- and not until after versatile tight end/slot receiver/running back Aaron Hernandez injured his ankle on a screen play.
For the rest of the game, Welker was again a fixture of the offense, presumably replacing Hernandez in the slot in many packages, as the Patriots were forced to use a three-receiver set with Rob Gronkowski playing a more traditional tight end role and a running back, usually second-year player Stevan Ridley, in the backfield. But Lloyd played all 82 snaps, usually as the boundary receiver, and Edelman was out there for 75 of the plays.
Now the talk around Boston and the rest of New England is what is going on between Welker and the Patriots. Welker, 31, is playing on the franchise tag this season after negotiations for a new contract extension went nowhere this summer.
Among the theories considered by The Boston Herald is that the Patriots are trying to drive his price down, he is in Bill Belichick's doghouse, the Patriots don't trust him after his critical drop in the Super Bowl, they are saving him for the playoffs, he is old and on the decline, and that Edelman is simply a better player than him (Ravens cornerback Cary Williams debunked that last theory in a conversation with my colleague Ed Lee).
Mike Freeman of CBS Sports has another theory: They plan to shop Welker in a trade. Several league sources told Freeman that a trade is "more than some remote possibility" and that it "might actually be a probability." Don't forget, they traded away veteran wideout Randy Moss four games into the 2010 season.
But Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels told reporters it was the byproduct of a specific gameplan for the Cardinals
"Sometimes we play guys a majority of the game, other times we feel like using some different rotations may give us some advantages, whether that's a matchup we end up with in the front, or a personnel grouping that we expect the defense to give us, or even formationally ourselves in terms of what we try to do," McDaniels said. "But certainly he's going to be a big part of our game plan each week that we go in and play."
In a Monday interview with radio station WEEI, Welker said he had "a little bit" of an indication that Edelman might start, but he said he "really wasn't positive even leading up to the first series."
"I wasn't sure what was going to happen," said Welker, who appears to be taking the high road at the moment. "I just go out there, and whenever my number's called, I go out and play. Coaches coach, players play. That's all I can do."
How often will McDaniels and the Patriots call Welker's number against the Ravens? They now might be forced to do it a lot.
Hernandez is expected to be sidelined Sunday night with that ankle injury. He is New England's most versatile offensive weapon and they line him up all over the formation to create mismatches. The Patriots have signed tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. to help fill the void. Winslow has been a productive pass catcher throughout his career, but it seems unlikely they will try to use him in all of the ways they used Hernandez. Plus, he has to learn that playbook, which is apparently more complex than most playbooks (right, Chad Ochocinco?). The Patriots brought back veteran wide receiver Deion Branch, too, and it's unclear how he will fit into the mix.
Still, assuming the demise of Welker's career has been greatly exaggerated, the shifty slot receiver should still be able to get open on some short and intermediate routes. After all, this is the guy who became the team's all-time receptions leader on Sunday with his 558th catch in a Patriots uniform. He has averaged more than seven catches a game during his 79 games with the Patriots, most of them propelled by the golden arm of Tom Brady.
"I don't pay attention to it," Brady said Wednesday. "I love Wes and he's a great player on this team and has been since the day he arrived, so nothing has changed in my mind."
We'll see what Welker's role will be whenever Hernandez returns and the Patriots can go back to using their base "12" personnel of a running back, two tight ends and two wide receivers. That will be an interesting situation to watch from afar. But as it relates to the Ravens, all that matters for now is how the Patriots plan to use Welker and Brady's many other weapons against their vulnerable 27th-ranked defense on Sunday night at M&T Bank Stadium.
"Anytime there's Tom Brady playing, they're always going to be dangerous," coach John Harbaugh said.