ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --By the time the Broncos run through the southwest tunnel at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on Jan. 12, 35 days will have passed since Wes Welker suffered his second concussion in a four-game span.
That might be expected to leave Welker a bit rusty upon his expected return to game action. But Welker disagrees with that notion.
"I don't think so," he said. "We have practices this week and next, and it will really give us a chance to get back into the groove of things and hopefully have a little bit better timing with fresh legs and everything else."
Welker practiced on a limited basis last week before sitting out the regular-season finale at Oakland, so the process of regaining his timing with quarterback Peyton Manning was already well under way.
"I feel like we were kind of on the same page today," Welker said. "You have good practices; you have bad practices. Things like that. Hopefully just keep it rolling into tomorrow and keep it going. But I feel like we've been around the league long enough where we know each other's thinking and can get on the same page and ready to go."
It has been a lengthy road back for Welker, who missed as many games in this regular season (three) as he did during his first nine NFL seasons combined. (He missed three regular-season games to injuries, and also sat out one game in 2004 when he was not on a roster.)
"I haven't missed many games in my career, so it is tough," he said, "and it makes you appreciate and it makes you hungry and ready to get back out there and ready to go out there and compete -- especially in a time of the year like this."
But it was necessary, given the nature of his injury, and the procedures now in place.
"I think we've taken a lot more action than what we would have had in the past with this whole ordeal," Welker said. "So I feel like we've taken enough time. It will be five weeks from the day when I had any contact at all, so I feel good, I feel fine, I feel ready to go."
One result of the league-mandated concussion protocol is the caution it mandates when a player is recovering from a hit. A player might feel at a specific moment like he is 100 percent, but the examinations reveal he is not, preventing his return from being cleared by independent doctors.
That situation arose for Welker in recent weeks. Now that he has been cleared, he understands what "100 percent" means.
"Even when I felt like I was 100 percent, looking back, you know, you weren't 100 percent, "he said. "So it's always a tricky injury, just trying to manage it and everything else. But the doctors and trainers did a great job of just doing the things necessary to get me back out there on the field."
Just as Welker's recovery took a while, so did the Broncos' adjustment to life without him, particularly on third downs.
The Broncos had converted a league-leading 48.2 percent of their third downs prior to Welker's second concussion. They converted seven of 26 in the two and a half games that followed. Even with a strong 9-of-15 day at Oakland last Sunday, they finished second in the league behind the Chargers, who surged past Denver by converting 56.4 percent of their third downs in Weeks 14-17.
But the Broncos' performance at Oakland -- particularly in the first half, when they went 6-of-7 before Manning was relieved for Brock Osweiler -- proved that the Broncos can convert third downs consistently without Welker. It also helped solidify other options for the quick outs, wheel and drag routes, slants and screens, on third downs, particularly running back Knowshon Moreno and tight end Julius Thomas.
Welker's return could make the offense even more potent, with alternative threats now able to sustain the offense on the short to intermediate routes it utilizes on third downs.
"A lot of times, teams will decide to go ahead and double(-team) Wes. So absolutely, it opens up things for me," said Thomas. "If I have a single-man coverage, it's something that I definitely enjoy and look forward to. But it might be opposite, they might some games decide to double me, and Wes is out there in single-man coverage.
"Wes brings a lot to this offense and we're excited to have him back."