Icy Pats will pay for Welker exit

Wes Welker, the New England Patriots’ all-time leader in receptions and the NFL’s most productive receiver over the past five seasons, signed a two-year, free-agent contract with the rival Denver Broncos on Wednesday.

Welker, one of quarterback Tom Brady’s longest-tenured teammates and closest friends, leaves Foxboro for Denver, where he’ll join Brady’s longtime rival Peyton Manning in Broncos blue.

Hours after the Welker news, the Patriots came to terms with free-agent slot receiver Danny Amendola. In going from the 31-year-old Welker to the 27-year-old Amendola, the Patriots got younger, paid more and looked toward the future.

But did they get any better?

I don’t see it.

Welker’s a special player, one who can change games and change seasons. His consistency, record of reliability and high productivity from the slot is unmatched by any other receiver in the game’s history. For as much as Tom Brady helped Wes Welker become the receiver he was, I believe Welker helped Brady.

This wasn’t the same Tom Brady who once effortlessly lofted 60-yard bombs to Randy Moss in 2007 taking the field in 2011 and 2012. Brady is now at his best when throwing short and intermediate routes to his underneath receivers and tight ends. Welker is the very best at his position and truly Tom Brady’s security blanket on Sundays.

Amendola, though productive when on the field, has a long history with injuries. He has missed 20 games over the past two seasons with the St. Louis Rams. He only played in one game in 2011.

Assuming Amendola is an upgrade from Welker is a fallacy; it’s underestimating just how productive and reliable a player Wes Welker has been in New England.

But this move wasn’t just about Welker, Amendola and who will be catching 100 balls from Tom Brady next season. This wasn’t entirely a "football decision."

This was about “The Patriot Way” — a cold, hard way of doing business. Welker wasn’t going to get the best of the Patriots’ front office. Not this time. And they were willing to let him walk away, off into the Denver Mile High air, because of it.

Contract negotiations between Welker and the Patriots fizzled this week, and when the receiver didn’t get the respect or money he felt he was worth, he took the deal from John Elway and the Broncos. In one fell swoop, the Patriots lost the greatest slot receiver to ever play the game, and did so to a bitter conference rival that they’ll no doubt be challenging for the AFC title in 2013.

If the reports are true — that the Patriots offered Welker two years, $10 million — it appears as though New England lost the team’s most consistent and valuable offensive weapon over $2 million — pocket change in the NFL’s game of high-priced free agent signings.

Welker’s departure, though somewhat surprising on the surface, is in line with the way the Patriots have long done business. No veteran player — whether it’s Wes Welker, Deion Branch or Richard Seymour — will ever hold the Patriots’ feet to the fire. It’s become the “The Patriot Way”  — get everything you can out of a veteran player, negotiate a new deal and then cut bait when the cost gets too high.

Though it’s usually a “Hey, that’s the business” moot point when a veteran is forced to leave the team he’s been with for an extended amount of years, Welker’s case seems almost personal.

His contract has long been a talking point in New England. Unable to come to terms on a long-term deal during Welker’s  restricted free-agent year last March, the Patriots placed the franchise tag on him. He made the average salary of the top five wide receivers in 2012, had another wonderful season and went about his business.

There was little talk of a long-term extension. When Patriots owner Robert Kraft declared earlier this week that Welker would “remain a Patriot for life, just like Tom Brady” — there were expectations that a deal would be imminent.

Add in the fact that Brady’s restructured contract cleared over $15 million in salary-cap space, and it was easy to envision Welker catching passes out of the slot on frosty, New England Sunday afternoons in 2013. Furthermore, unlike last year at this time, Welker wasn’t given the franchise tag this month.

An optimist would look at all this — the quotes from Kraft, the Brady deal, the decision not to franchise Welker — and assume that New England was looking to sign him to a long-term deal, keeping him in a Patriots uniform for the rest of his playing career.

The optimist, of course, is not always the realist.

The optimist isn’t a student of the “Patriot Way.”

This mantra, this way of doing business, has long been lauded by football scribes. Bill Belichick is routinely praised for his keen eye in player personnel and managing a roster to its fullest. Whether it’s Sterling Moore, a former Raiders practice-squad member, starting in the Super Bowl or getting big production from Danny Woodhead after he was cut by the Jets, Belichick has long had the Midas touch.

He sees things others don’t. New England loads up on draft picks, plucks talent from obscure places, gets the most out of under-valued players other teams no longer want, and then sends them packing when they view the time as right.

Whereas this approach helped notch three Lombardi Trophies in four years, it’s been eight years since the Patriots last won a Super Bowl. Tom Brady isn’t getting any younger; his arm isn’t getting any stronger.

If there ever was a player worth ignoring “The Patriot Way” for, it was Welker. But that exception wasn’t made.

Now Welker is in Denver, where he’ll join an already loaded receiving unit that includes rising stars Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas.

This will be a fun storyline to follow throughout the 2013 season: Brady, Manning, Amendola and the latest veteran the Patriots have let walk out the door to finish his career somewhere else.

I think they’ll regret the decision.