The following originally appeared on http://www.985thesportshub.com on April 14, 2021.
By Bob Socci
Late Monday afternoon, as word of Julian Edelman’s release and subsequent retirement announcement launched an unending string of tributes and ongoing debate about Hall of Fame worthiness into the Twitter sphere, I put my iPhone down and started scrolling through the timeline of the past eight years.
Why eight, and not the dozen since the Patriots drafted Edelman in 2009?
Personally, that’s how long I was privileged to describe (well, try to describe) his play on radio. More importantly, it’s a period that begins at a pivotal juncture, when Julian drastically altered his individual narrative and served to silence prevailing talking points about his team.
Think about where he, the team and we all were a week into the 2013 season, as questions about the Pats were amplified and criticisms sharpened over airwaves and in print.
Wes Welker, whose acrimonious exit from Foxborough had become daily fodder for local sports talk callers and hosts alike, was coming off nine catches and two touchdowns in his Denver debut. Meanwhile, Danny Amendola, signed as Welker’s presumed replacement to a five-year, $31 million deal, despite an injury-plagued past, was hurt again, having torn a groin muscle in Buffalo.
Eight weeks in, the backlash over one free agent’s departure and another’s arrival became even more embittered. Welker’s nine touchdowns in the Broncos’ record-setting offense had already tied a career-high. At the same time, Amendola’s 2013 games missed equaled his games played.
“It’s been a total failure,” one prominent radio voice declared, his words echoed by many others. Including his co-host, who proclaimed, “The Patriots are getting their asses kicked on this one.”
Concurrent with the Welker-Amendola storyline was another widely-expressed opinion, locally and nationally. Losses in consecutive postseasons to Baltimore (twice), the Jets and Giants led many in football’s chattering class to refer to — insult — the Pats as a “finesse team.”
For many, that label still stuck well into 2013.
Which is when it became clear that Edelman was beginning a mid-career breakthrough that would help prove such suggestions libelous and eventually render the Welker lament moot.
Until then, Edelman had gone from ex-college quarterback picked in the 7th round to instant dynamo on special teams to promising Welker understudy on offense. A feel-good journey, sure. A “hell of a story,” not yet.
Edelman had entered that April a free agent, after his 2012 campaign was cut short by a broken foot, only to re-sign with the Patriots on a one-year deal. At a maximum value of slightly more than $1 million, their agreement featured a split-salary clause to insulate the team in case of further injury. After all, Julian had missed 16 of 64 regular-season games to date.
The Patriots got more than their money’s worth. As they would usually get from a guy who gave them everything he could give.
In 2013, Edelman caught 105 passes for 1,056 yards. His six TD’s included two in New England’s largest regular-season comeback ever, a Sunday-night victory over Welker’s Broncos.
Following another unrequited flirtation with free agency in 2014, he again re-upped with the Pats. What continued was one of the greatest six-season stretches by a receiver in Patriots history. What followed was one of the greatest postseason runs by a receiver in NFL history.
The latter alone, leaving him behind only Jerry Rice in playoff receptions and receiving yards — need one say more? — is why Edelman merits consideration for Canton. Never mind the naysayers who quickly dismiss the notion. Especially those who wrongly see Edelman as a slot-receiving hybrid of Welker-Amendola or only pass prompt judgement off statistics and accolades.
As Edelman’s biographer Tom E. Curran says, you can’t tell the history of the NFL without Edelman. A big reason why is the starring role Julian played in the second decade of football’s greatest dynasty.
“One of the great success stories in our franchise’s history,” is how Robert Kraft characterized Edelman on Monday. If a presenter is ever allowed to make Edelman’s case to the Hall’s electors, evidentiary exhibits A & B should be the full testimonials from Kraft and Bill Belichick.
In Belichick’s statement, he described Edelman as “the quintessential throwback player. He could, and did, do everything – catch, run, throw, block, return, cover and tackle – all with an edge and attitude that would not allow him to fail under any circumstance. Julian Edelman is the ultimate competitor and it was a privilege to coach him.”
Edelman covered kicks. He returned punts, averaging 11.2 yards and totaling four scores. He completed passes — 7-of-8 overall, two for TD’s.
The first is forever etched into memory from the 2014 AFC Divisional playoffs. That was his strike to Amendola, a 51-yard dagger against big, bad Baltimore in a comeback win that revealed the Pats’ true heart and shredded some of the silliness about them being “soft.”
Edelman even blitzed passers and covered receivers.
When the secondary was shorthanded late in 2011, Belichick gave him a defensive directive. Edelman eventually split snaps in the AFC Championship win over the Ravens — 27 on offense and 27 on defense. Two weeks later, in Super Bowl XLVI, he was again aligned in the defensive backfield.
In the years to come, starting mostly in 2013, it’s what Edelman did to defensive backs that left his most indelible marks. On his stat line, sure. On the game’s grandest stage, absolutely.
Sticking to Edelman, when healthy, was a near impossible ask. See him step, stop and spin free for the game-winning score against Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX. Or watch him probe and exploit the openings in the Rams’ defense en route to his 10-catch, 141-yard exception to an otherwise offensive struggle in Super Bowl LIII.
If somehow you could stay with him, out-competing Julian was an entirely different matter. The world got to witness that truth in Super Bowl LI, during a split-second battle royale over a tipped ball between Edelman and three Falcons.
Uncanny reaction. Incredible concentration. Undeniable want-to. Combine them all and you come up with ‘The Catch,’ one of the most iconic plays in football history.
But as vividly as I see it unfold again right now, as I type — the ball plummeting off the right leg of Robert Alford and right arm of Ricardo Allen before Edelman squeezes it tight — so many other highlights flash by.
Stopping, starting, darting left, then dashing right, breaking ankles in the process, on a punt return. Catching a throw across the middle in front of oncoming defenders and instantly ducking to fold himself into the turf.
And of course, gritting his way through a painful fourth quarter of the Kansas City game two years ago on a weakening knee that would ultimately become one of “the wheels (to) fall off.” Or grimacing his way past reporters after an earlier playoff meeting with the Chiefs, while heading for an x-ray on the foot he’d broken back in Week 10 of 2015.
Finesse, my ass.
Broken feet. Broken ribs. Broken knee. But never a broken spirit.
Edelman’s competitiveness, like his fearlessness and toughness, have often been mentioned in his teammates’ social media messages the past few days. Some, such as Kraft and Tom Brady, cited Edelman’s personal growth.
It’s a subject that arose during a conversation with Matthew Slater a couple of training camps ago. We were discussing a moment captured by NFL Films in the celebratory aftermath of Super Bowl LIII.
Slater and Edelman had wrapped their arms around one another. In mid hug, Slater learns of Edelman’s Most Valuable Player honors and tightens his grip before becoming more emotional.
A private moment made public, to me, it symbolizes something more significant than success in sport.
One Black, the other White. One abstains from social media, the other is all over it. And while one is devoutly Christian, the other is Jewish; having increasingly and publicly embraced his faith and heritage. In recent years, Julian’s served as a source of pride, strength and enlightenment after the horrific mass shootings at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue and repulsive anti-Semitic speech by other pro athletes.
“Love is a tenet of my faith, of Julian’s faith, of a lot of people on this team and how we try to live our lives,” Slater told me in August, 2019. “In love you can find common ground. Certainly we have differences, but that love and respect for one another brings us together.
“I love that guy like a brother. We’ve been through a lot together. They call us the odd couple, but for whatever reason it works.”
Sadly, Slater and Edelman won’t get to experience one more season as teammates. Julian’s knee no longer works well enough.
And unfortunately, football is too unforgiving to — like other sports — allow for farewell tours.
Instead of a pregame ceremony replete with a rocking chair and framed jersey, it’s a failed physical, an update to the transaction wire and announcement that one has played — not will play — his final game.
On Monday, we learned Edelman’s last game was last Oct. 25 against his boyhood favorites, the 49ers. His was a one-catch performance in a 33-6 loss.
Thinking back to an afternoon that seemed to offer little for Pats’ fans to savor, I picked my phone back up to search the camera roll. It’s habit — ritual, actually — for me to take a pregame walk, taking pictures along my route.
On this day, I strolled along the concourse and stopped at the Veteran’s Day memorial in the last row of the North end zone seats to capture a shot of the view. Six championship banners — three of which Edelman helped earn — help form the backdrop.
In between them and the foreground I stand on is a tiny, somewhat blurry figure, right where he usually is hours before kickoff in a mostly vacant stadium.
He wears a blue ball cap and red, hooded sweatshirt, its sleeves cut off at the elbows. A white towel hangs from the right side of the waistband to his gray sweatpants.
And, of course, he has his red gloves on. The red gloves that are every bit his trademark as the yellow Kent State t-shirt he dons for practices and overgrown beard he wears most Januarys.
Julian Edelman stands still in the photo. But I can picture him. One after another. Both hands, then one hand. Catching pass after pass, as part of a precise routine he’s repeated umpteen times.
This is this kind of example, no doubt, Kraft has in mind when he says, “No one was more committed to his craft and honing his skills than Jules.” And one of many reasons Edelman engineered a “professional trajectory” and enjoyed “longevity” that Belichick classifies as “historic.”
That his ascendance occurred after Welker left the team as it’s all-time leader in receptions and before Amendola became known as “Playoff Danny,” makes Edelman more than an all-time great Patriot.
It makes him an all-important Patriot.
He, as much as anyone in the past eight years, helped change how others view and talk about football in Foxborough, forever.