Julian Edelman started out last week with his best Ivan Drago impersonation, began his Saturday by quoting Shakespeare, and then—after totaling 111 yards on 10 catches and one end-around run in the Patriots 27–20 divisional round win over the Chiefs— ended the night talking about Hanukkah. Yeah, it was that kind of a week.
The speedy slot receiver had not played in two months—62 days to be exact—and yet on Saturday he proved, without any doubt, that he is the diminutive engine that keeps the New England offensive machine operational. Yes, Tom Brady is the fulcrum around which the franchise rotates. And sure, Rob Gronkowski is the matchup nightmare that keeps defensive coordinators up at night, the kid on the Pop Warner field who all the parents protest must present his birth certificate. But Edelman is ... well, he’s everything else. He’s the Swiss Army Knife that just keeps surprising you—right when you think you have discovered all of its functions, oh, look, there’s a toothpick, and there’s a screwdriver.
Just as Edelman’s week was all over the place, so too was the receiver all over the field on Saturday. First downs, third downs, hitch routes, slant routes, wheel routes, option routes, back shoulder fades, even taking handoffs in the backfield. It seemed that on every drive Edelman was doing something different to breathe life into what had recently been a moribund Patriots attack. He caught balls when he was wide open—burning Kansas City corner Marcus Peters with his patented blink-and-he’s-gone cuts—and he caught balls when there were four Chiefs defenders around him, crowded closely inside his personal bubble.
Nobody seemed to know how close to full health Edelman would be, how effective he’d be or even how long he’d be able to stay on the field ... and then he had 16 targets in the game (his second-most in a game over the last two seasons), played in 88% of New England’s offensive snaps and led both teams in catches and yards. If some Patriots fans were concerned entering the day, apparently Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were not.
Maybe it’s simple. Maybe it’s just that Edelman operates on a different pain spectrum than the rest of us. After all, he did play nearly the entire second half of a game in college after he tore his PCL. And then, after that game was over, he was back at practice the next day going full bore. “He will always play hurt, and he’ll always play through pain,” says Doug Martin, his coach at Kent State. “A lot of guys talk about it, but Julian talks the talk and walks the walk. His competitiveness and his toughness are second to nobody.”
Which is why it should come as no surprise that, as it became clear early last week that Edelman would suit up against Kansas City even with his foot still gimpy, the receiver took a play right out of the Rocky IV playbook. “If it goes,” Edelman told reporters, “it goes”— invoking the cool casualness of one Ivan Drago. What he meant was that if the foot breaks again, well then, so be it.
Luckily for the Patriots, it didn’t break again, as his own receiving stats don't even fully encompass all that Edelman brings to this team. Before Edelman broke the fifth metatarsal in his left foot during New England’s Week 10 win over the Giants, the Patriots offense, and its quarterback, had been humming along. To understand what happened in the seven games after Edelman went down, well, let’s just look at a few before and after numbers:
Before: The Patriots were second in the league in yards from scrimmage per game (431) and receiving yards per game (338.1)
After: The team fell all the way to 25th in scrimmage yards (334), nearly 100 yards fewer per game, and to 17th in receiving yards (252.7)
Before: Tom Brady was fourth n the NFL with a 67.8% completion percentage and led the league with a 111.1 passer rating
After: That completion rate dropped to 59.1%, ranking 25th, and the passer rating fell to 88.8, 17th.
Before: The Patriots had the second-highest first down passing percentage in the league, at 39.7%, and the best third down conversion rate at 48.7%
After: They dropped to 24th, only throwing on first down 31.7% of the time, and to 25th in 3rd down rate, converting 32% of the time.
Former Patriots safety and Super Bowl champion Lawyer Milloy knows how critical Edelman’s slot position is to the Patriots’ success over the last decade and a half. He points out that, over the years, Brady has always had an undersized, sure-handed receiver as his safety valve— from Deion Branch to Troy Brown to Wes Welker, and now to Edelman. “More than anything it’s his importance to Number 12,” Milloy says, “It’s such an important role, not only to the offense overall, but to Tommy’s success.
“You can see the relationship that [Brady and Edelman] have built over the last couple of years,” Milloy continues. “It’s evident that Tommy trusts him and that he’s very important to what they are trying to accomplish…When that trust is not there [with a receiver], those guys usually don’t last.”
Trust is the operative word there. For all quarterbacks in the NFL, trust with receivers is imperative. But it is even more so in the complex New England offense. The Patriots playbook is notoriously difficult for receivers to grasp— not because of the breadth of different plays that they run, but rather because one particular play can have multiple different variations. Sight adjustments, route conversions, hot routes— Brady and his receivers all have to be on the same page, and they have to do so without telling each other exactly what page that is. They have to get to the line of scrimmage, scan a defense, and see the exact same thing. Is there tight press coverage or is the corner playing off? Is there going to be a linebacker blitz? Are the safeties in single high or cover two? Are they rolling toward one side of the field?
“It’s a thinking man’s offense, and that’s where Tommy is so good,” says Damon Huard, Brady’s backup in New England for three seasons. “But in that offense, the guys that have to be thinking just as much as the quarterback are the wide receivers.”
It’s no secret that Edelman was a quarterback in college—and even before college when he led his Pop Warner team to a national championship at age 11, and his high school team to an undefeated season. When he arrived at Kent State in May 2006 (coming from San Mateo, a Juco) his coaches were not expecting him to be ready to start by the beginning of the season. But then: “He learned the whole playbook and won the starting quarterback job from that time to the summer,” Martin, his old coach, says. “He has a great understanding of the game, a great understanding of how football works, how defenses work, and how offenses should scheme against them.
“Quarterbacks have an overall understanding of what everybody is supposed to do on a play,” Martin continues. “But when you're dealing with somebody who has just been a wide receiver their whole life, what they really learn is their assignment. And that’s all they learn. Julian carries that quarterback mentality over now as a wide receiver. I guarantee he understands exactly what everybody is supposed to do on every play that New England runs.”
Maybe that explains it. Maybe that explains why Brady and Edelman are so in sync, why the quarterback has the blind conviction to throw a ball into the narrowest of windows, between four different Chiefs defenders, before his receiver even got out of his break. He knows that Edelman will see exactly what he saw, and he’ll be exactly where he is supposed to be.
Edelman has come a long way from being Brady’s self-described personal gopher in his early years, when he was no more than an afterthought on the Patriots’ depth cart. “I kind of did anything for him,” Edelman told ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap last week. “If he needed something I’d go get it.” He even went as far as to move to Los Angeles during the offseason, “to be near [Brady] just in case he needed me.” The sucking up eventually paid off.
At 10:00 a.m, about six-and-a-half hours before kickoff against the Steelers, Edelman sent out a tweet:
Fittingly, this quote is from Act 1, Scene 2, of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a play with a theme of re-establishing the natural order of things. And just as Shakespere’s Prospero was trying to take back his throne, so too was Edelman looking to reclaim his own on Saturday. It proved to be a much simpler task for the receiver.
About an hour before kickoff, Edelman was the first Patriots player to take the field. It was the first time all day that the New England crowd stood and roared. And then they roared again when Brady targeted Edelman four times on the Patriots opening drive—including an 11-yard third down conversion, and a 13-yard quick hitter on the following first down play. That drive ended in a Gronkowski touchdown, after he split wide left and saw single coverage. How does Gronk see single-coverage in the red-zone, you ask? Because Edelman, lined up in the slot to the tight end’s right, had already proved he was not there just to be a decoy and forced the Chiefs to send safety help his way. Order, restored.
So, again, catches and yards are only the tip of the iceberg. The Patriots have always been notoriously averse to running the ball. Against Kansas City, they had a mere seven carries by running backs—compared to 42 pass attempts by Brady. The reason they were able to succeed with this unbalanced attack was because Edelman’s quick slant and hitch routes on first downs work as a sort of running substitute, giving New England a simulacrum of a rushing attack without actually having to hand the ball off.
And New England’s much maligned offensive line—who, because of injuries and poor play, had seen 13 different lineup combinations this season—was able to hold the Chiefs 4th-ranked pass runs to a whopping zero sacks. How? Because, according to Pro Football Focus, without Edelman on the field Brady releases the ball in 2.65 seconds (eighth slowest in the league). But when Edelman is playing that time drops to 2.13 seconds, the fastest of any quarterback. So, one might say that not only is Edelman the Patriots most important receiver, he is also their most important running back and offensive lineman.
“Tommy is very intelligent, he understands how to get the ball out quickly and into his playmakers hands when he needs to,” Milloy says. “But even he needs those playmakers to be there for [the offense to work].”
The Patriots' most important playmaker was standing in front of his locker after Saturday’s game had ended, after New England clinched a berth in its fifth consecutive AFC title game. Edelman was surrounded by an ever-growing phalanx of media members that spilled over not just to the adjacent locker, but to the one next to that as well. He mentioned the phrase “mental toughness” several times when describing not only his own return to action but the entire Patriots team. He cited the “familiarity that [Brady] has with me and I have with him” when asked how the pair were able to be in sync after two months away. Somewhat comically, Edelman went back and forth with reporters about whether or not he had an X-ray on his foot taken after the game—the conclusion being that he’s not allowed to talk about that kind of stuff. When asked about how he felt before the game began, when those 62 days of being inactive were finally coming to an end, he said he “was like a kid opening presents on Christmas or Hanukkah.”
But most importantly for Patriots fans is one of the last things Edelman said, before the crowd dispersed and he walked out (with a slightly noticeable limp): “I feel good enough to be ready for next week.” And although Edelman was wearing all black—black pants, black shoes, black hoodie, black beanie—this was no funeral; it was a rebirth.
Edelman’s health means the rebirth of the Patriots’ dynamic offense and, with it, the rebirth of New England’s chances to repeat as Super Bowl champion.