Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 14, 2013

Another Hero Kicked Out Of The Company Town

To be fair to the New England Patriots, one has to acknowledge that their fans really should be used to this by now. No team in the NFL, indeed no team in North America irrespective of the sport, makes personnel decisions with quite the cold-blooded ruthlessness of the Patriots in the Bill Belichick era. When the man in the grey hoodie makes up his depth chart sentimentality plays no role, past performance carries no weight, and the extent to which a player is loved by the fans is of no relevance.

Drafted in 1996, Lawyer Milloy made an immediate impact in New England’s secondary, playing in every game as a rookie. By 2001 he was leading the team in tackles and had been voted defensive co-captain by his teammates as the Patriots claimed the franchise’s first championship. But one year later when contract negotiations stalled he was summarily released. In 2009 it mattered not a whit that Richard Seymour had anchored the defensive line for eight seasons, playing through injuries and being named to five straight Pro Bowls while helping New England triumph in three Super Bowls. Entering the final year of his contract, Seymour was shipped off to Oakland. There have been many other examples of players released or traded despite their contributions on the field, including Randy Moss, Mike Vrabel, Laurence Maroney, Willie McGinest and Asante Samuel. Sometimes the issue has been money and sometimes management has wagered that a player’s best years are behind him. Then there are some positions that seem particularly lacking in job security, no matter how well the incumbent produces. It seems like virtually every year there is a new running back lining up behind Tom Brady.

Despite the team’s history fans and plenty of sportswriters all around New England reacted with surprise and no shortage of dismay this week when on the second day of the NFL’s free agent signing period slot receiver Wes Welker inked a two-year contract with the Denver Broncos. Right up until the news of Welker’s departure broke there did appear to be some solid reasons why this time things might be different.

For starters, just one day earlier Patriots’ owner Bob Kraft was telling reporters in New York how important Welker was to the organization. “I love Wes Welker. I hope he remains a Patriot for life. Just like Tom Brady,” said Kraft, as reported by ESPN. “We want Wes. We really do,” he added, according to the New York Post.

Then there was the fact that just two weeks ago quarterback Brady agreed to a three-year contract extension at a paltry $9 million per year, far below the market value for an elite signal caller. While insuring that Brady will indeed remain a Patriot for life (the deal runs through 2017, when he turns 40), under the NFL’s complex accounting rules Brady’s willingness to give the Patriots a home town discount in future years provided New England with $15 million in immediate salary cap relief over 2013 and 2014. Pundits immediately assumed that the team would use this newly available cash to retain Brady’s favorite receiver.

With the owner expressing his affection and money no longer a stumbling block, Welker’s statistics, the numbers that prove just how comfortable Brady has been throwing to number 83, offered the most compelling reasons for fans to convince themselves that the four-time All Pro would still be wearing a Patriots uniform next fall. Welker arrived in Foxborough prior to the 2007 season after three seasons in Miami. In the six years since, no player in the league has caught more passes. He reached the 500 catch plateau as a Patriot in just 70 games, an NFL record. His 672 regular season catches are a franchise mark, and he broke the old Patriots’ record that Troy Brown needed 192 games to set in just his 79th game in a New England uniform. Last season his 118 receptions of course led the team. The statistical website calculated that more than seventy percent of those catches resulted in either a first down or a touchdown, in no small part because of the diminutive Welker’s ability to add yards after the catch.

Yet for all of those accomplishments, Wes Welker’s ticket out of New England was probably punched a year ago. That’s when he was unable to come to terms on a new contract, with the team eventually putting the franchise tag on him for last season. That gave him a salary of $9.5 million, but also meant the stalled contract talks would have to begin again once the season ended.

Belichick wasted no time in revealing his displeasure over Welker’s refusal to agree to whatever the club was offering. In just the season’s second game Welker, who had been on the field for 90% of the team’s offensive snaps the previous year, was relegated to the bench. The owner of the franchise record for receptions was suddenly third on the depth chart, behind Julius Edelman and Brandon Lloyd. The coach’s apparent plan to turn Welker into an afterthought was derailed by fate. Tight end Aaron Hernandez was injured in that game and tight end Rob Gronkowski also went down later in the season. Belichick had no choice but to play Welker, and once he was on the field Brady was more than happy to go to him and the results were as spectacular as ever.

But statistics weren’t going to make team management forget or forgive the preseason contract impasse. When the negotiating window opened last weekend Denver contacted Welker’s agent, offering $12 million over two years. That $6 million annual salary will make Welker the 24th highest paid wide receiver next season; chump change given his accomplishments on the gridiron. But New England refused to match Denver’s offer, and Welker, perhaps displaying his own bit of pique, may have taken the low-ball deal as a way of sticking it to Belichick one last time.

The Patriots love to boast about “the Patriot Way,” in which players subsume any personal interest or glory to the greater good of the team. There’s no doubt that the franchise has been remarkably successful during the Belichick era, but the notion that New England has a copyright on the concept of teamwork is laughable. Lots of NFL franchises pull together, and certainly the most successful individuals in the league know they owe a large measure of that success to the hard work of their teammates. Rather the Patriot Way is really just modern shorthand for a far older concept, that of the company town. A concept born in the 19th century, the company town was a place where much or all of the property, services, and businesses were owned and operated by one company. Every citizen worked for that one corporate owner, and absolute loyalty was the price of a job.

It’s estimated that at their peak there may have been more than 2,500 company towns in the U.S. But they faded away as mobility increased and workers came to realize that such paternalism could carry a high price in the form of low wages and poor services; and that if loyalty was expected to flow only one way, it wasn’t really loyalty at all. But this week Wes Welker learned, as others have before him, that Foxborough is still a company town. As for Tom Brady, he’s reportedly incensed about how his friend and favorite pass target was treated. But Brady is the ultimate company man in the NFL’s company town; soon enough, he’ll get over it.

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