FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — For Wes Welker, his presence on the practice field was just another step in his comeback from a major knee injury.
Fans and reporters saw it differently. Might the New England Patriots star receiver defy forecasts and actually be able to return for the season opener?
Even Welker was surprised by the optimistic, almost giddy, reaction to last Wednesday’s workout where he did agility drills, ran routes and caught passes from Tom Brady precisely four months after surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
“I didn’t think it’d be that big a deal,” Welker said after a similar session Monday during the Patriots organized team activities. “I’ve been pushing it and trying to get ready and get out there with my teammates, get a few reps and try and get better as much as we can.”
Still, last week’s appearance left an impression that what once seemed a huge long shot after he was hurt in the final regular season game suddenly appeared possible.
Callers to talk shows and media members speculated that Welker, whose 346 receptions are the most in the NFL over the past three seasons, might actually play on Sept. 12 when the Patriots start the season with a home game against the Cincinnati Bengals.
Welker didn’t speak to reporters that day. He did on Monday but sidestepped a question about whether he was aiming toward returning for that game.
“I want to get back as early as possible, and whenever that is, is when it is,” he said. “My main goal is just working hard and getting back with my teammates as soon as possible.”
He answered other questions just as cautiously and with a bland expression. Hinting at a timetable, he had said previously, would indicate a setback if he missed it.
So Welker goes about his work while being carefully monitored by team training and medical personnel.
“I feel pretty good out there,” he said. “I still need to get back in the groove of playing ball and doing some things like that. But everything’s feeling all right now.”
He spent about 20 minutes Monday weaving through cones and running routes, some of them ending as so many of his regular season routes do — with a reception from Brady. He wore a brace on his left knee then went into the Patriots’ indoor practice facility. He emerged later with a trainer and walked carefully down metal bleachers and onto the field where he watched from the sidelines as his teammates practiced.
Then the 5-foot-9 Welker was surrounded by a large group of reporters.
He’s said he’s “not really” surprised at his progress since his operation on Feb. 2. He’s “been trying to do football-specific stuff from the get-go, and trying to do that as much as possible.” And the brace “feels fine,” but he doesn’t know if he’ll have to play games with it.
“I feel good,” Welker said, “just trying to work hard and from day-to-day, just get better. That’s been my plan from the get-go. I’m sticking to that plan.”
Welker tore his ACL and damaged his medial collateral ligament, which didn’t require surgery, without being touched when he planted his left leg after a short reception, his NFL-leading 123rd of the year, on the Patriots fourth offensive play of a 34-27 loss at Houston on Jan. 3.
The next day, coach Bill Belichick said, “Wes is a great competitor. And I’m sure that, whatever (the injury) is, he’ll work hard as he always does to bounce back.”
He apparently has.
“I’ve been trying to push it since Day 1 and get back as early as possible, back out there with my teammates,” Welker said Monday. “I always feel confident. I wouldn’t be out there if I didn’t feel confident. I know the coaches and teammates have confidence in me, just like I do them. We’re just going to move along as quickly as we can.”