The Fine Fifteen: Look Who’s Back
In the end, Wes Welker and the St. Louis Rams were wed in a marriage of convenience for both on Monday. St. Louis is last in the NFL in third-down conversion rate (23.8%), and last by a lot—the Rams aren’t within five percentage points of any other team. And Welker, with the Patriots and Broncos over the past eight years, caught 794 passes, mostly from Tom Brady and Peyton Manning, and a slew of them on third down.
But Welker knows, and the Rams know, that they will be criticized for the signing because of Welker’s concussion history. He has had no fewer than six in the NFL, including three in a nine-month span. He played a healthy 2014 season with the Broncos. Still, many teams shied away from Welker because of the league’s fears over the concussion issue—at least—and Welker went to several experts in the field over the past few months to get cleared. That’s how desperate he was to continue playing. In April, he told longtime Broncos beat man Mike Klis that he had been examined by a doctor on the NFL’s Head, Neck and Spine Committee, and the tests came back confirming that he was well enough to play. “My cognitive tests were good,” Welker told Klis. “All kinds of tests came out good.”
On Monday night, Rams GM Les Snead would not discuss anything about Welker’s concussion history because of medical privacy issues. “It’s a very sensitive subject in our league right now, obviously,” Snead said from St. Louis. “The awareness about [concussions] in this league is at an all time high, and should be. I’ll keep all those details in-house. But that was a major part of our homework on this. Wes has talked to those experts in the medical profession. The physical [examination] was a very important part of this.”
Those who have not examined Welker or his medical records are the ones who will criticize the signing, and criticize Welker for not retiring. It’s understandable. Even the best neurologists cannot tell Welker what another concussion would do to his life 10, 20, 30 years from now. Kurt Warner sat because very smart doctors couldn’t predict the future for him, and he wasn’t willing to risk the health of his brain any longer. This is Welker’s choice.
As for the football part of it: The Rams worked out Welker recently, felt he still had the athleticism and ability to be quick in and out of cuts, and knew they were losing wideout Stedman Bailey to a four-game suspension beginning this week. They are the youngest team in football, and Snead and coach Jeff Fisher saw signing Welker as a way to bring a veteran presence, education and experience into a room of young receivers needing a mentor.
“This guy has done nothing but move the chains for two Hall of Famers for the past eight years,” Snead said. “He knows how to get open. But it’s also a way for our players to see the passion he has and to help them become better players and people, just by watching how Wes works and by being around a veteran who’s done so many good things.”
Now for this week’s Fine 15:
1. New England (8-0). The Patriots travel to New Jersey to meet their Kryptonite on Sunday. The Giants and Patriots have faced each other four times with Tom Coughlin and Bill Belichick on the sidelines, and with Tom Brady and Eli Manning quarterbacking. Giants 3, Patriots 1 ... including two Super Bowls won by the Giants.
2. Cincinnati (8-0). America’s new darlings? Perhaps. Another national TV date awaits this week, Monday night at home with the Texans, for a team that’s a serious threat to meet the Patriots in the AFC title game.
• ANDY DALTON AND BENGALS FANS: IT’S COMPLICATED: Infamously booed by the hometown crowd at the MLB All-Start Game in July, Dalton is winning over even the most Cincy supporters by his performance during an unbeaten start.
3. Carolina (8-0). Cam Newton pulling down a stadium banner? Not defensible. Also, not the crime of the century.
4. Denver (7-1). DeMarcus Ware missing a couple of weeks with a bad back is a big deal. It would be a lot bigger if one of the best backup players in football right now—no exaggeration—were not on the depth chart behind him. Watch Shaquil Barrett Sunday against the Chiefs; he’s a really good player.
5. Arizona (6-2). I smell a big game coming soon for J.J. Nelson, the lightning-bug rookie receiver from Alabama-Birmingham. He made a stupendous catch in Week 8 at Cleveland, and Carson Palmer loves him.
6. Green Bay (6-2). All those who had Oakland and Buffalo outscoring Green Bay entering Week 10, raise your hands.
7. Minnesota (6-2). “I love Teddy,” coach Mike Zimmer says of quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, “and he’s going to be the quarterback here for a long time. But sometimes I’d like to see him take a few more chances.” Assuming Bridgewater plays—he enters the week in the concussion protocol—he may need to heed that advice Sunday at Oakland. The Raiders can score, and the Vikings will need to match them.
8. Seattle (4-4). Three games at home in 15 days, starting Sunday night against the Cards (then Niners and Steelers.) Time to show you’re contenders, ’Hawks.
9. Indianapolis (4-5). Strange team. But the Colts played three unbeatens in a four-game span. Pats/Panthers/Broncos 87, Colts 80.
10. New York Jets (5-3). Brandon Marshall is on pace for 108 catches, 1,460 yards, 10 touchdowns. Not a bad move, Mike Maccagnan, getting him for swapping a fifth-round pick for a seventh-rounder.
11. Pittsburgh (5-4). I said it Monday in my column: The Ben Roethlisberger injury shouldn’t cripple the Steelers. Cleveland comes to Pittsburgh Sunday, then the bye, then Pittsburgh at Seattle. If he misses three weeks, Pittsburgh should still be able to split those games.
12. New York Giants (5-4). Nice debut for Jason Pierre-Paul in Tampa, with 45 snaps and six quarterback hits/hurries of Jameis Winston, per Pro Football Focus. Giants need him to do a little more Sunday against Tom Brady.
13. Oakland (4-4). There can’t be five teams with a more diverse set of offensive weaponry in football right now than the Raiders.
14. Buffalo (4-4). Not a fan of the I.K. Enemkpali captaincy for Thursday night against the Jets. At all.
15. Philadelphia (4-4). Losing Jordan Hicks, a potential defensive rookie of the year pick (one sack, two picks, a touchdown, three fumble recoveries, one forced fumble) is a big blow to their linebacking unit.
Also receiving votes:
16. St. Louis (4-4). No shame in an OT loss at Minnesota, but Nick Foles has to do more.
17. Atlanta (6-3). Losers of three of four. Looking exceedingly mortal.
18. Kansas City (3-5). Might be getting its act together after the London rout of the Lions.
19. New Orleans (4-5). Doubt Rob Ryan’s getting many free drinks in the Quarter this week.
20. Chicago (3-5). Jeremy Langford, Zach Miller and Jay Cutler all showed something Monday night in San Diego.