By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The sports world relies entirely too much on cliches. Even if those hackneyed banalities exist for a reason, they end up being overused so badly that they tend to lose any real meaning.
So when you hear the words gritty underdog, hard-worker, relentless competitor, it can all kind of blend into the wallpaper.
Yet if there’s anyone who should defy that trend, it would of course be Julian Francis Edelman.
The 34-year-old remains out with a bum knee. He’s unlikely to return to risk further injury in a meaningless Week 17 game, and though his contract runs through 2021, he may have played his final game as a member of the Patriots. If so, then the inevitable will have come for Edelman, the way it has for every player before him.
If it is indeed over, it will come after 12 years, four major injuries, one suspension, 738 receptions, 69 rushing attempts, eight passes, 48 touchdowns, one Super Bowl MVP Award, three Super Bowl titles, countless instances of absorbing massive hits and getting back up, and one of the most unbelievable rises to superstardom the sports world — and certainly, the Patriots franchise — has ever seen.
Sure, the unlikelihood of Edelman’s path may pale in comparison to Tom Brady, the quarterback who threw him the majority of the passes in his career. But that’s only because Brady’s climb from sixth-round pick to fourth-string QB to six-time Super Bowl champion remains the most improbable sports story of all time.
Yet Edelman’s beginnings were undoubtedly more humble than Brady’s. After getting zero scholarship offers out of high school, he spent a year at junior college in San Mateo before getting an offer from Kent State. There, he threw 30 touchdowns and 31 interceptions, doing more damage on the ground (2,483 rushing yards, 22 rushing touchdowns) than with his arm. The Golden Flashes went 13-23 during his three years at quarterback.
To say that Edelman wasn’t getting much draft buzz would be … an understatement. And then some. Yet Bill Belichick — who’s got a bit of a knack at discovering talent where others might not look — took a seventh-round flier in the final hour of the 2009 draft on the undersized kid from Kent State, specifically drafting the quarterback as a receiver.
From there, you know the story well, though it often still gets distorted. While Edelman became Brady’s favorite target, providing a seamless transition out of the Wes Welker era, it took a while to get there. (Welker, by the way, was the most productive wide receiver in Patriots history not named Stanley Morgan, and he was a rock-solid, reliable punt returner. Replacing him was no minor feat.)
The two-touchdown performance as a rookie making his playoff debut was of course the only memorable part of an otherwise miserable afternoon for the Patriots, but it was hardly an “arrival” for Edelman, who would catch just 11 total passes over the next two seasons before contributing with 21 receptions, 235 yards and three touchdowns in 2012. His spot work on defense against Anquan Boldin in the AFC Championship Game stood out more than most of his offensive workload.
Final drive of the 2011 AFC Championship Game
Julian Edelman playing man coverage against Anquan Boldin 🔒🗜 pic.twitter.com/s9jbcb7FF1
— Brad Kelly (@BradKelly17) May 22, 2019
At that point, Edelman was a free agent. He made a visit to the Giants. His career could have gone several different ways. But he ended up re-signing with New England on a one-year deal worth less than $1 million. If he failed to take significant steps forward as a 27-year-old with four years of experience in the league, then his career would likely be over.
And it was at that crossroads when Edelman became Edelman.
With Welker gone, Edleman caught 105 passes for 1,056 yards and three touchdowns. For perspective, he had 69 receptions, 714 yards, and four touchdowns combined in his first four years.
He had six receptions for 84 yards in a divisional playoff win over the Colts, and he had 10 catches for 89 yards and a touchdown as the Patriots’ only real receiver in the AFC title game loss in Denver. A knack for stepping up in the postseason — beginning with that two-touchdown game as a rookie, continued with his emergency work on defense in 2011, and blossoming in 2013 — had become quite clear.
After that, everyone knows the Edelman story.
He caught 251 passes for 2,770 yards and 14 touchdowns from 2014-16.
He caught 26 passes for 281 yards in the 2014 playoffs, and he threw an iconic touchdown to Danny Amendola, and he also hauled in the Super Bowl-winning touchdown against the league’s best defense. (Incidentally, his tackle on Jeremy Lane also knocked the Seahawks’ only prayer of covering him out of the game.)
After 17 receptions and 153 yards in the 2015 playoffs, he showed up in the 2016 playoffs and put forth one of the best performances ever for a wide receiver. It was so good that it’s getting the indent treatment.
JULIAN EDELMAN, 2016 PLAYOFFS
21 receptions, 342 yards, 1 TD
2 rushes, 14 yards
7 punt returns, 66 yards, 9.4 yards per return
And also, this:
If Edelman’s career had ended there, it would have been an excellent one. And when he tore his knee in the 2017 preseason, it appeared that it had. The list of receivers over the age of 30 to come back from torn ACLs was short. To the point that it was not entirely “existent,” as some would say. And the list of receivers who rely more on their quickness and cuts than their outright speed to come back from a torn knee after the age of 30? It basically was as long as the list of MAC quarterbacks who become critical pass catchers on dynastic teams.
So if you were counting Edelman out at that point, you were merely obeying the numbers and history. To do so would not be foolish at all … if you were evaluating anyone other than Edelman.
While he may have relied upon a banned substance to aid with that recovery in 2018, there’s no downplaying what he was able to do once he returned to the field with an offense that desperately needed him. He caught 74 passes for 850 yards and six touchdowns in 12 games, a pace that would have had him setting career highs in yards and touchdowns. (He would set that receiving yards personal record the following season.)
Then came the playoffs. Oh, boy. The 2018 playoffs.
Facing a top-10 defense in the Chargers, Edelman caught nine passes for 151 yards in a 41-28 win.
In a frigid AFC Championship Game in Kansas City, Edelman caught seven passes for 96 yards, including a pair of receptions on third-and-10 in overtime.
And then the Super Bowl. The Rams threw every defender they could at the man. Nobody could stop him.
Julian Edelman vs. Samson Ebukam
Julian Edelman vs. Marcus Peters
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) February 6, 2019
Julian Edelman vs. Marcus Peters, again pic.twitter.com/Z9dHx8WXBE
— Michael Hurley (@michaelFhurley) February 6, 2019
Ten receptions, 141 yards, Super Bowl MVP.
Next — because a dynasty cannot close its doors without losing — Edelman and Brady brought it back for another year. The 2018 season won’t be remembered fondly in New England, but Edelman was nevertheless a standout: 100 receptions, 1,117 yards, six touchdowns.
The 2020 season has obviously been much worse, yes. But Edelman did still manage to set a single-game career high in receiving yards when he caught eight passes from Cam Newton for 179 yards. Unfortunately for that duo, the chemistry didn’t get much more chance to build, as Edelman’s battle with a knee injury became too much to bear by the end of October.
Edelman won’t get the chance to add to his postseason totals, but he doesn’t really need to. Here’s what Edelman’s been able to accomplish in his 19 playoff games, 15 of which he was a contributing offensive player:
MOST PLAYOFF RECEPTIONS, ALL TIME
1. Jerry Rice, 151
2. Julian Edelman, 118
3. Reggie Wayne, 93
MOST PLAYOFF RECEIVING YARDS, ALL TIME
1. Jerry Rice, 2,245
2. Julian Edelman, 1,442
3. Michael Irvin, 1,315
Edelman also is one of just seven wide receivers to ever earn Super Bowl MVP honors.
Suffice it to say, not many people were penciling Edelman’s name right under Jerry Rice’s in the history books back in 2009, or even in 2012. That Edelman’s put himself there is perhaps the best way to understand his impact on the Patriots franchise.
Now, Edelman’s future isn’t known. He could hang it up — and after the absolute beating he’s endured in the NFL, there’d be no shame in doing so. He is under contract, so he could return to New England. And there’s always the possibility that he finds a way to reunite with Tom Brady, his favorite human, down in Tampa.
Whatever the future may hold won’t change that history. A seventh-round converted quarterback turning himself into one of the most important pieces of the greatest dynasty the NFL has ever seen is the type of story that even Hollywood rejects. It’s simply too far-fetched, too ludicrous.
It’s not possible.
And yet, we saw what we saw, he did what he did, and those three banners hanging above the south end zone at Gillette Stadium aren’t there if not for the work of Julian Edelman.
He’s been the perfect Patriot, a no-doubter for the team hall of fame (and a legitimate candidate for the real Hall of Fame). He may end up returning to the football field; knowing him, he’ll almost certainly try. So the career eulogy here may be premature.
Regardless of what comes next, it’s worth appreciating the story that’s already been written. There’s no way we’ll ever see another one like it.