FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Wes Welker’s mouth landed him in hot water prior to the New England Patriots’ divisional playoff game against the New York Jets last season.
Whether plotted or improvised, planned or impromptu, the wide receiver’s verbal jabs seemingly directed at Jets coach Rex Ryan and his reported foot fetish left him sidelined for the Patriots’ first offensive series.
The Jets had the last laugh, though, silencing Welker and the Patriots with a stunning 28-21 victory at Gillette Stadium.
Entering the AFC East rivals’ first meeting of the season Sunday, Welker’s hands are now doing all the talking he needs.
Carving through defenses like a piece of soggy wood, the distinctly diminutive receiver is off to a record-setting pace, leading the league in catches (40) and receiving yards (616) while swiftly blossoming into quarterback Tom Brady’s prized target.
“I think just working together for the past five years now and offseason training of getting together and running routes and knowing each other’s thinking against each and every coverage and different things like that,” Welker said of his sizzling start with Brady, a potent pairing that has New England (3-1) atop the league in total offense and passing yards per game.
“At the end of the day, it’s just getting open and him making his reads and putting it where it needs to be. So far it’s worked out pretty well.”
It’s not as if he wasn’t already one of Brady’s favorite weapons since his arrival in New England in 2007, when he burst onto the scene with the first of three consecutive 100-catch, 1,000-yard seasons.
But the 5-foot-9, 185-pound receiver’s production through one-quarter of this season dwarfs that of any other year, not to mention every other receiver in the league. Dallas tight end Jason Witten is second in receptions with 27, while the next nearest receivers are Philadelphia’s Jeremy Maclin and Atlanta’s Roddy White with 26 each.
Yet Welker still insists his approach is nothing different than in years past.
“That’s what the offseason’s for,” he said. “Every time I go out there and train it was to make sure I’m ready to go on Sundays and make sure I’m ready to outlast my opponent and outwork them and outrun them and do everything necessary that I need to do to get open and do well on the football field. All that plays a big part whenever you’re out there training.
“Really every day of work you put in, it’s something we call kind of putting it in the bank and then make some withdrawals as the season goes on.”
The Patriots are hoping he’s not overdrawn just yet.
Welker ignited this ridiculous run with the longest play in team history, a 99-yard, catch-and-run touchdown in the Patriots’ season-opening win over the Dolphins. He followed that two weeks later with another record-setting performance, hauling in 16 catches for a franchise record 217 yards and two touchdowns in a last-second loss to the Bills. Another nine receptions and 158 yards agai nst Oakland last Sunday now has Welker on pace for 160 catches, a torrid total that would break former Indianapolis Colts receiver Marvin Harrison’s mark of 143 in 2002.
Fellow Patriots receiver Deion Branch sees the same crafty, diligent player he witnessed up close last year and from afar before that.
“This guy works hard in practice, he knows exactly what he’s doing on the field, Tom trusts him,” Branch said. “All the things that he’s been doing the years he caught those 100 balls, it’s nothing different.”
Perhaps payback for that January press conference when Welker made multiple references to Ryan’s reported foot fetish, the Jets’ outspoken coach jokingly slighted the eighth-year veteran in his conference call on Wednesday.
“It looks like to me that Welker is struggling this year — 40 catches,” Ryan said. “This offense in general is struggling — you talk about our offense, but New England is (tied for) second in scoring offense, so if you want to talk about struggling I think they need to look at themselves first.”
Making Welker’s blistering start even more remarkable is he is only 21 months removed from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament suffered in the 2009 season finale. He battled back and returned nine months later for the 2010 opener, eventually leading the squad with 86 catches and 848 yards.
“He’s certainly ahead of where he was physically last year at the beginning of the season,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “Wes has always been a good player. He’s had a lot of production through the years, before coming here and since he’s been here. It comes and goes in different games.
“I don’t think it’s planned or I don’t think he’s running routes differently or eating more broccoli or anything. It’s something that it just kind of happens.”
Welker’s increased production may warrant uncharacteristic coverage by the Jets (2-2) this weekend. Reports indicate Ryan may opt to place Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis on Welker in the slot rather than in his traditional spot on the outside.
“It would do a lot of things for all of us, not just me personally,” Branch said. “Whatever happens we’ll see it pretty early and then we’ll go from there.
“I’d be glad if they double anybody except me,” he added with a laugh.
Ryan, however, wouldn’t divulge his blueprint for Revis or Welker.
“We have (a plan) but that doesn’t mean I have to tell you or anybody else,” he said. “Whoever we put him on, he’ll cover — if that’s Branch, if it’s Welker, if it’s Chad (Ochocinco), or Randy Vataha. It doesn’t matter, he’ll cover them.”
Regardless of the coverage, Welker has flourished in his last four meetings against the Jets, highlighted by a 15-catch, 192-yard assault in November 2009.
Ryan hasn’t forgotten that game.
“Welker, trust me, he’s miserable,” he said. “I think he broke the all-time record against us one week — he had like 20 catches.
“He is obviously a tremendous player.”