My father likes to say, "It's a short step from the penthouse to the outhouse." It was this expression that occurred to me as I watched Wes Welker bury his face in a towel on the bench in Houston this afternoon, shortly after being helped off the field with what appeared to be a serious knee injury.
I think a lot of us had been flying high after the Patriots seemed to finally put it all together last week against Jacksonville; now here we were, back in the latrine.
It had happened on a fairly routine play -- the sprightly Welker had caught a short pass on the left side and was running with it near the left hash mark when he went to cut around a defender. Replays showed Welker's foot hitting the ground awkwardly, and his left knee giving way as he tried to switch directions.
After the play, he lay curled in his usual post-play position on the ground. Time after time we have seen him crumple into this huddled mass on the field, only to watch him pop back into form, jump to his feet and trot back to the huddle.
This time, Welker raised just his lower body off the ground. And then, to the abject, nearly-inexpressible horror of Patriots fans everywhere, he began grabbing his left knee.
Trainers were on the field in a flash. CBS cut to a commercial. When they returned, Welker was being helped off. After the training staff lowered him gently to the bench, Welker buried his face in a towel, his chest heaving. The trainers talked to him and he kept the towel over his face as he shook and nodded his head in reply. When he pulled the towel away a few minutes later, his eyes were red and puffy.
There were probably more than a few pairs of eyes looking like that on the other side of the TV screen, too -- Patriots fans haven't felt this big a gut-punch since it was Brady writhing on the field against Kansas City last year. "Pay no attention to the plumes of smoke coming from New England," tweeted @CMSBMatty. "Patriots fans are just lighting themselves on fire."
To be sure, there are quite a few bodies on the field other than Welker, and there were more than a few other things that happened today in Houston. Talk radio was abuzz with debate over the decision to sit Brady near the end of the second quarter, then start him again in the third quarter. The name of Dean Pees was also taken in vain, as the Texans had picked on the New England defensive secondary, especially late in the game, when they scored the go-ahead points.
But this was a game that the CBS talking heads had picked Houston to win anyway, not expecting the Patriots to play most of their starters. The Patriots have already clinched the division and a playoff berth, and have a couple of weeks to get things straightened out again when it comes to other problems.
Welker, though. Not only have we never seen him suffer such a severe injury, but according to his father, he hasn't either.
Yes, among all those other bodies on the field, there's still Randy Moss, and even Welker 2.0, Julian Edelman. But so far this season it's been Welker doing practically all the dirty work for the receiving corps. He's shown himself to be a spiritual leader on the field as well, if through nothing other than the example he sets. He's been the spark, the "dirt dog we're looking for," as I put it a couple of weeks ago. Without him the 2009 Patriots' already-iffy playoff prospects look dim indeed.
There's a reason they play the games, of course, and that quick step from outhouse to penthouse works in reverse, too. But for now, I think Leland Welker said it best: "We're absolutely sick."