FOXBORO - Is it an injury? Or some other form of disconnect that has suddenly developed between Patriots' wide receiver Wes Welker and head coach Bill Belichick?
Neither would say Monday as the Patriots started their very short week of preparation for the preseason finale against the New York Giants on Wednesday (7 p.m.; Ch. 4, 64). But it was clear to reporters that clustered around Welker in the Gillette Stadium locker room that the use of polite but dismissive "Ask Coach Belichick " answers to simple questions might be indications of some sort of rift - one that may have been intensified Monday with the revelation that tight end Aaron Hernandez has been given a five-year, $40 million contract extension.
"It's good for him," said Welker, who was made the Patriots' franchise player in the springtime and will be playing this year under a one-year, $9.5 million tender. "I'm definitely happy for him. He's a great player and done a lot of great things for us. Good to have him here."
Welker and the Patriots were unable to come to an agreement on a new long-term contract by the July 16 deadline, restricting them from engaging in further negotiations until after the season.
Hernandez, who was not available to the media during the locker-room availability period, reportedly received a $12.5 million signing bonus and a guarantee of $16 million. Reports said he was due to be paid three-quarters of the signing bonus over the next seven months.
The Patriots had yet to officially announce Hernandez's new pact by mid-afternoon, but Belichick took the rare tack of all-but-confirming it when he said he was pleased that things worked out between the two sides.
"Any contract that we agree to is one that we're in support of," Belichick said. "If we agree to a contract on a player, then we're in support of that player - the length of the contract, the amount that we're paying him, all the other things that go with the contract. We wouldn't do it if we weren't in support of it, as an organization, me personally, all of the above.
"We wouldn't have done it if we weren't happy with it. I'm glad it worked out," he added.
When Welker was asked if he thought the contract extension for Hernandez might have an effect upon his own chances to remain a Patriot, his response was cryptic.
"I think you have to ask Coach Belichick that," he said. "I'm just going out here and doing my job to the best of my ability, and let everything else take care of itself."
That's a fairly normal dismissive comment for the Patriots' locker room, but there are apparently other issues afoot that prompted Welker to play the "ask Coach" card more than once.
He has had no playing time in the last two preseason games, which wouldn't be alarming by itself except for the fact that there has been no definitive news (either factual or rumored) of an injury.
Before the Patriots played Philadelphia, Welker left the last practice of that week about midway through for reasons that were never made clear. Then when the Patriots traveled to Tampa for their joint practices with the Buccaneers, Welker was held out of the second session - again, no reason given - and he did not play in that game.
Welker termed his absences the result of personal reasons and did not elaborate. He was back on the practice field Monday afternoon.
"A lot of it was personal issues, and I'll leave it at that," Welker said. "I'll let Coach Belichick take care of everything else."
Asked to clarify if an injury was responsible for idling him in the two preseason games, Welker replied, "I think you'll just have to talk to the coach about that."
Belichick's Monday press conference came after the players' session in the locker room, so naturally, he was asked what Welker's status was. Twice, the coach responded, "Day-to-day."
Belichick also said he and the coaching staff had not yet made plans for playing time assignments for Wednesday's preseason finale, so it's still uncertain if Welker will be held out of the last game before they start to count.
If there is some sort of disconnect between Welker and either the coach or the team, the veteran receiver didn't make things sound as if they would impede him from concentrating upon the season ahead and giving his best effort.
"I'm under contract," he said. "I played out my last deal and I'll play out this one and then we'll see where we're at. I feel like we've made a lot of progress through camp, and hopefully we'll come out there and do well in this preseason game, and move on.
"I look forward to being out there with the team, and I'm looking forward to 2012," he said.