First, let us start with praise for the 2006 Patriots.
Remember them? Easy to forget, I guess. Three years can be a long time. Lots can happen in the interim. In 2006, we had never heard of Spygate. Gisele was just another supermodel. Charlie Weis had just taken Notre Dame to its second straight BCS Bowl. The Celtics were about to start a 24-win season that was essentially an eight-month tank job with the (crossing fingers) hope of landing Greg Oden.
To quote Robert Zimmerman, things have changed.
But back to the 2006 Pats. Thirty years from now, they'll be totally forgotten. But this was a really good football team. A 12-4 record. AFC East champions. Seventh in the league in scoring and second in points allowed. Went on the road and beat a 14-2 Chargers team in the playoffs. OK, the AFC title loss at Indianapolis was an all-time killer, but clearly this was a team you leave alone, right? Just roll the same guys out next year and take your chances.
Well, there was the matter of Reche Caldwell ...
Look, there are upgrades and then there are UPGRADES. Cris Collinsworth is an upgrade over John Madden. Jon Gruden is an UPGRADE over Tony Kornheiser. Going from Jennifer Aniston to Angelina Jolie was an upgrade. But Mimi Rodgers to Nicole Kidman (please remember we are talking about the 1989 Kidman, not the current version -- she has Botoxed herself out of the rotation) was an UPGRADE.
Think Randy Moss and Wes Welker over Caldwell and a 35-year-old Troy Brown deserve capital letters?
And it wasn't just Caldwell and Brown, either. The 2006 Patriots might have had the worst corps of receivers in the league. Doug Gabriel? Bam Childress? Chad Jackson? Something had to be done.
So Bill Belichick turned a second-, fourth- and seventh-round pick in the 2007 draft into Welker and Moss. And in one weekend, the Patriots went from having one of the five worst 1-2 receiving combos in the NFL to having one of the five best in history. And if Tom Brady hadn't missed the 2008 season, I think you'd be looking at these two as the very best of all time, at least in terms of "peak value” (which I would define, in football terms, as three seasons or less.)
Before now, there has never been a time in NFL history when the league's best possession receiver AND top deep threat played on the same team. Since the beginning of the 2007 season, Welker leads all NFL players in catches with 302, 35 more than any other player (Larry Fitzgerald). And guess who leads the league in TD grabs over the past 2-1/2 seasons? Moss, with 42 (Fitzgerald is also second on this list, with 32). Receiving yards? Moss is third and Welker is sixth.
Not too shabby, eh? But the numbers, I think, are even more impressive when you take out the season Matt Cassel was under center. Tom Brady has played in 26 regular-season games (not counting Bernard Pollard) during the Welker/Moss era.
The Patriots are 23-3 in those games (and undefeated at home.) Brady, who never threw for more than 28 touchdowns in a season before 2007, has thrown for 70 touchdowns in the 26 games. Welker has played in 24 of those games (the Pats are 22-2) and has 191 catches and 12 TDs.
Just to give you an idea of how many catches that is, consider this:
-- Deion Branch, probably the receiver most would have considered the best Brady ever had prior to 2007, played in 43 games with the Patriots. He had 213 catches. That is 22 more catches in 19 extra games.
-- Welker led the league in catches in 2007 and leads the league in 2009 (despite having missed two games.) He’s on pace for 126 catches and will have the top three seasonal reception totals in franchise history at the end of the season.
-- If the season ended today he’d be a lock for first-team All-Pro (he’s been on the AP second team in each of the past two seasons.)
-- Welker is already seventh in Patriots history with his 302 catches. There are 43 players in Pats history with 100 or more receptions, and among them Welker has played in the fewest games with the franchise.
-- The other nine guys in the top 10 averaged 122 games with the Patriots, or about five seasons more than Welker.
-- The player who has needed the second-fewest games? Moss, with 230 catches (11th all time, between Tony Collins and Vincent Brisby) in just 42 games.
Now, it can be argued that Welker didn’t miss Brady much (he did catch 111 passes last season, though his yards per game are way up this season), but there is no question that Moss wasn’t the same without No. 12 in 2008. Sure, he put together a nice season (69 catches, 1,008 yards, 12 TDs), but with Brady he has been as good a receiver as the league as ever seen, at least in terms of getting into the end zone.
Moss has played in all 26 games with Brady and has caught 31 touchdown passes. Think about that for a second. Even if you take out his entire 2008 season, Moss is tied with Fitzgerald for the most TD catches since the beginning of the 2007. He’s on pace for 100 catches, 1,480 yards and 13 TDs. If he can get to 100 catches (and I’m assuming Welker is a lock if healthy), the two would be the third pair of teammates in history to do so.
One other Moss item? If he does indeed maintain this pace, he will have caught a total of 47 TD passes in his three seasons in New England. That would be the best three-year total in history (Jerry Rice caught 46 from 1986-88.)
Oh, and if Welker keeps up HIS pace and finishes with 126 catches? That would give him 349 catches in his three seasons with the Patriots. And, no, that would not be the best three-year total in NFL history. Just the second best, behind Marvin Harrison’s 354 catches from 2000-02.
That’s what you have been watching for the last 2-1/2 years. Two wide receivers, on the same team, putting up historic numbers. Eye-popping stuff (and yes, there is a Reche Caldwell joke in there somewhere).
And the fact that both have been so good is why I have to put them at the very top of all-time WR duos. Lynn Swann and John Stallworth played together for nine seasons and in that time combined to lead the league in one category. It is possible that after this season Welker and Moss will have combined to lead the league in five categories during their three seasons in New England.
And I get that we are talking different eras, but Swann retired with 336 catches. Welker will have more than that in three seasons with the Patriots. How about Mark Clayton and Mark Duper? Played together from 1983-92 in Miami with Dan Marino. While Clayton can at least be compared to Moss (led the league in TD catches twice, four times in the top 10 in receiving yards), Duper falls short when looked at next to Welker. In his 11 seasons, he never finished in the top 10 for receptions. And neither was ever voted to the All-Pro Team.
What makes the Moss/Welker duo unique is that there really isn’t a second banana. A classic 1 and 1A. And that isn’t the case with the other famous tandems.
Of course, Jerry Rice is the best wide receiver of all time (and I think the best football player who ever lived), but John Taylor never finished in the top 10 in catches or receiving yards in any season during his career. Michael Irvin is another all-timer, but Alvin Harper never caught 50 passes or had even 900 yards in a season. Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne had only one season when both made the Pro Bowl (2006.) They were never both great together for a long stretch. In 2007 Wayne took over as the lead guy and Harrison had just 20 catches.
The duo that makes the best case as the most dominant over Moss and Welker? Moss and Cris Carter. As teammates with the Vikings, they both made the Pro Bowl in 1998, 1999 and 2000. Moss led the league in TD catches in 1998 and 2000, Carter led the league in 1999. Moss had at least 1,300 yards receiving in each of those three seasons with a total of 43 TD catches. Carter played the Welker role, catching 90 passes in 1999 and 96 in 2000.
If Moss and Welker keep up their season paces in 2009, I’d give them a slight three-year edge, but it is close. Shows how great Moss truly is, by the way. A part of arguably the two best wide receiver combos of all time, a decade apart.
Over the last two weeks we watched Moss catch nine passes for 179 yards and two TDs against the Colts and Welker catch 15 passes for 192 yards against the Jets. Both were brilliant efforts, the kind that personify each guy.
Either would be a career game for 99 percent of the receivers in the league. But you know what? Neither performance was a surprise in any way. We have come to expect that level of play from both of them. A long way from Chad Jackson.
And a long way from just an upgrade.