FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- WES WELKER stepped under Monday night's primetime spotlight knowing he had a chance to do something nobody has ever done. With eight catches, he would become the first player in NFL history to catch at least 100 passes in five different seasons, separating himself from what had been a tie with Jerry Rice and Marvin Harrison.
But if he gets his just due, Welker will someday find himself right alongside those all-timers again.
In the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
His candidacy for such an honor is still a long way off, and at 31 years old, Welker's only focus on the future beyond this season is whether the Patriots will pay him big money to remain with them for the long term. Though as long as New England does the right thing, and gives the franchise's all-time leading pass catcher the contract he deserves, by the time his name comes up for consideration he should statistically rank among the best ever.
If Welker maintains the pace he took into Monday's game against the Texans - which would also make him the only NFL receiver ever to catch 120 balls in three different seasons - he'll move up to 27th all-time. If he matches even his worst season as a Patriot next year, he'll be in the neighborhood of 18th. And if he does that again a year after that, he'll be knocking on the top 10 in career receptions.
Only eight players have ever caught 1,000 passes, and though Welker was still 258 shy of that mark at the start of Monday's tilt, his previous 258 catches came over 34 games. If he keeps that pace, he'd be in grand company come sometime in late December of 2014. And he'll still be just 33 years old.
The cases against Welker's candidacy are the same that surfaced at the start of this season, when some thought Welker was being phased out, and at the very least the Patriots seemed to be exploring whether or not Julian Edelman could at least be reasonably effective in the same role.
The critics say Welker is a product of the system, of his position, of playing with Tom Brady - and they diminish his accomplishments because of all three. They contend that all three inflate his numbers, and suggest that if he was allowed to leave Gillette Stadium when his deal expires the Patriots would simply plug in someone new and the offense would continue humming along.
But if it were really that simple, why wouldn't other teams be doing it? New England is almost certain to surpass the 500-point plateau for the fourth time in Welker's six seasons, and as a result the team had posted a regular season record of 73-19 entering Monday. Surely those are results every other team in football would emulate if it was simple to do. Especially those with an elite quarterback.
Brady is obviously a big part of those prolific numbers. In fact, there's no question he's the biggest. But before the Pats traded for Welker prior to the 2007 season, the team had scored more than 400 points only once in Brady's era (437 in 2004).
And on an individual level, before Welker was his teammate, Brady never threw for more than 28 touchdowns, never had a passer rating better than 92.6, and only once threw for 4,000 yards. Remember: In the debate between Brady and Peyton Manning, Manning had the numbers but Brady had the rings.
Well, now Brady has both to his credit. Since Welker came to town, Brady's worst touchdown total for a full season is 28; his worst passer rating is 96.2; and he's about to hit the 4,000-yard mark for the fourth time in five years. Comparing the collection as more of a whole, Brady was an 88.4-rated quarterback before Welker, with 147 touchdowns to 78 interceptions; with Welker, he's 106.5, and 178 to 41.
Someday Brady will be spoken of as one of the best ever. Though his story can't be told without speaking of Welker.
Rice wasn't less respected because he played with Joe Montana and Steve Young. Harrison wasn't thought less of because he was receiving throws from Manning. And yes - ask Larry Fitzgerald - even the best receiver is nothing without a serviceable quarterback. But it's worth noting that Welker had 111 catches playing with Matt Cassel, too.
The numbers don't end there, either. With 16, Welker entered Monday with more 10-catch, 100-yard games than anyone in history. He's already ensured himself a third straight (and fifth overall) season of 1,000 receiving yards. He has at least 80 more catches than any player since 2007 (despite tearing his ACL therein). Over that span he'd made over 1,000 yards after the catch more than Ray Rice, who's second in the league.
And he shows no signs of slowing down - so the numbers are only likely to keep getting bigger, keep getting better, and keep rewriting "Welker" in the record books that have the names Rice and Harrison all over them.
So, ultimately, that shouldn't be the only place their names can be seen together.
OFFENSIVE GUARD Logan Mankins and defensive end Chandler Jones returned from injury for the Patriots on Monday night, fortifying New England in the trenches against a Texans team that typically owns that area.
Rookie running back Brandon Bolden also returned for the Pats, having served his four-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. He was active for the game.
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Patriots for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.