Julian Edelman might not be a Hall of Famer, but he was a star
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story originally ran on Feb. 5, 2019, after Edelman won the MVP award at the 2018 Super Bowl. Edelman announced his retirement Monday after a 12-year career with the Pats. He recorded 6,822 yards on 620 catches, but he really excelled in the playoffs: He ranks No. 2 overall in career postseason yards and touchdowns.
ATLANTA -- Julian Edelman was choking up, on the verge of tears, and needed a second to try to gather himself, to put what had just happened in perspective. He crouched down, in the center of a chaotic sea of gleeful celebration, and began playing with pieces of confetti at his feet. The moment seemed almost too big to process. The kid who used to cry in his father's arms at night, cursing his family genes because he was the shortest player on every team he played on, had somehow grown up to win the Most Valuable Player award in Super Bowl LIII.
As Edelman struggled to process his moment, a small but vocal group of football fans across America decided to try to make it into something much, much bigger. Inexplicably, a somewhat absurd debate broke out:
Is Edelman a Hall of Famer?
Normally it's foolish to elevate these kinds of debates above the mindless, bubbling content bog that is Twitter and sports talk radio because it has become increasingly difficult to separate the sincerity of people's arguments in those mediums from boredom, trolling or pleas for attention. But Edelman's unlikely Hall of Fame candidacy gained a bit of credibility this week when it was backed by some surprising allies: Jerry Rice and Boomer Esiason.
"The guy is clutch in the biggest of games," Esiason said in the buildup to Super Bowl LIII. "I don't know what else to tell you. He is, in my eyes, truly the definition of a Hall of Famer: make the play when the play needs to be made in the biggest games to win the game."
Rice, the only receiver in NFL history with more postseason yards than Edelman, also said that Edelman deserves Canton consideration.
The fact that Edelman's potential enshrinement is even a topic of discussion, at this stage of his career, should probably be cited by future historians as the perfect example of how short our attention spans grew to be in 2019. We are prisoners of the moment, and the moment is tricking us into making silly, unsupportable arguments.
Is Edelman one of the best postseason players of all time? Certainly, especially if you consider what a big role he played in Super Bowl wins for the Patriots against the Seahawks (he caught the decisive touchdown), the Falcons (he made a preposterous circus catch in the fourth quarter during New England's wild comeback) and the Rams (he was his team's only effective offensive player for much of the night). But you're leaning pretty heavily on the word "fame" if you think those moments should earn him a spot in Canton. This is not Kurt Warner, a player who was briefly the best at his position. Edelman has never made a Pro Bowl.
On top of that, any argument on Edelman's behalf seems to conveniently forget or ignore the fact that he was suspended the first four games of the 2018 season after testing positive for a banned substance in the offseason. Now, it's safe to assume that, after he missed the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL, any use of PEDs would have been an attempt to aid his recovery. But it's even safer to say that any Edelman candidacy, which is already statistically sketchy considering he's 248th all time in receiving yards (5,390) and 148th all time in catches (499), would be significantly hampered -- if not torpedoed -- by this elephant in the room.
Even if you believe, as many do, that the modern NFL has become so violent that players ought to be able to take whatever they want to stay on the field, it would be an incredible insult to every NFL wide receiver who insisted on playing clean if Edelman's best argument included a season in which he served a suspension for not following the rules. Imagine how it must feel for former Rams wide receiver Isaac Bruce to see arguments in favor of Edelman. Bruce racked up 1,024 receptions, 15,208 yards and 91 touchdowns -- and he has been passed over three times.
It also says a lot about this era that, in response to a bit of hyperbolic support for Edelman, many of us are compelled to focus on his limitations rather than his accomplishment, just as he has reached what will likely be the pinnacle of his career, catching 10 passes for 141 yards in his third Super Bowl win. The Patriots suspected that the Rams were going to struggle to match up with Edelman on Sunday, in part because he is so good at disguising his routes and finding holes in zone coverage.
"He works very hard at making a lot of things look the same, even if they're different," Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels said after the game. "He's got countermoves to his moves, he's got great releases, and he knows how to battle. At the end of the day, if you're playing receiver, and you want the ball, you'd better get open. It doesn't matter how. Sometimes he punches defenders, sometimes he pushes off, sometimes he runs his route shorter than it should be, but he's always open. He understands the game, and he's given us every single thing we've ever asked of him -- and then some. It doesn't surprise me tonight that he played the way he did."
In truth, there has never been a player quite like Edelman in the modern era of the NFL. He might not be the best slot receiver of this era, but he's definitely in the conversation, and that's a remarkable feat for someone whose NFL chances once hung by such a thin thread that he strongly considered becoming a fireman after college.
When the Patriots took a flier on him in the seventh round of the 2009 draft, he would stay at the facility so late at night that the Patriots equipment guys had to kick him out when they locked up. "I just loved being there," Edelman said. "I'd stay there every night looking at my helmet because I loved it so much."
It's also likely that none of this would have taken shape had Tom Brady not been restless one offseason while living on the West Coast, when he dialed up Edelman to see if he wanted to play catch. They were teammates, in a sense, but they barely knew each other. Brady was already NFL royalty; Edelman was trying to cling to a roster spot. All Edelman could think was, "I used to pretend to be you when I was playing touch football with my friends back in eighth grade."
That first session, Edelman ran so hard and caught so many passes that he puked afterward. Brady was impressed. A brotherhood began to take shape. "It's a bond that was borne over hard work, trust and respect," McDaniels said. "Julian matched his work ethic and showed him he could trust him over time. You don't get that the first day or even the first year."
Every time the Patriots' coaching staff told him that his spot on the roster was tenuous, Edelman understood that Brady's growing faith in him might be what saved his job. Whether it was true or not, he told himself that one dropped pass in practice or a game might be the difference between having a long NFL career and working alongside his father, Frank, in the family's auto mechanic shop in Mountain View, California.
"He's a fighter, man," Brady said. "I'm just so proud of him. He's been an incredible player for this team in the playoffs, and he just cemented himself, again, in the history of the NFL for what his accomplishments are."
Edelman was so worried about saving money early in his career that he and teammate Matthew Slater rented a house in Foxborough together and lived like college kids, sharing expenses and household chores. "He was a terrible roommate," Slater joked Sunday night. "Didn't take the trash out, always leaving dishes around."
But Slater didn't mind, in the long run, because of the conversations they often ended up having late into the night, sharing their doubts and fears about living on the margins of an NFL roster. In 2011, when the Patriots asked Edelman and Slater to shift to the defensive side of the ball, they figured it was a bad sign for their career prospects.
"That was a pretty low point," Slater said. "We just kept telling each to keep working hard, keep believing we can do this, and maybe one day it will work out for us. ... To see us go from a couple of California kids living together to try and save a buck to him being the Super Bowl MVP is pretty special."
Edelman liked living with Slater so much that, after four years, when Slater got married and decided to move out, Edelman told him to ask his wife if he could have a room in their new place.
"My wife was like, 'No way are we living with Julian,'" Slater said. "And Julian was like, 'No, tell her we can make this work.' But seriously, I love him like a brother, man. My wife loves him. My kids love him. He's been there for so many big moments in my life. I'm so appreciative for our friendship."
In the end, whether Edelman makes it to the Hall of Fame seems almost irrelevant, considering that Brady will go down as the NFL's best quarterback of all time, and you can't tell the story of Brady's career (particularly the back half) without bringing up Edelman. When the two men embraced on the field after the game, with fresh confetti sticking to their uniforms and landing on Edelman's unkempt beard, it was clear how much their relationship has come to mean.
"The hug was just two Bay Area boys that love football, love to compete and are living out our dreams," Edelman said, getting sentimental before closing with an affectionate zinger. "I think he held me. I didn't hold him."
After the game, in the Patriots' locker room, New England owner Robert Kraft presented the team with a humidor full of 50-year-old cigars, encouraging the players to each grab one as they made their way to the afterparty. Kraft insisted that Edelman go first since he was the game's MVP, and Edelman was happy to oblige, snipping off the end with a cutter and popping it into his mouth.
It was still in his mouth 15 minutes later when he made his way toward the exit, grinning like a man who didn't give a damn about whatever his legacy might be but was happy to bask in the improbability of the present.