The Patriots' Triple Threat
By Peter May, New York Times
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Julian Edelman said he never saw it coming. True, he had been a versatile performer for the New England Patriots, catching passes and returning punts and kicks. He had also set season records for total offense as a quarterback in college. But playing defense?
That apparently came out of the ever-creative mind of Coach Bill Belichick. And when the Patriots were trying to snap a two-game losing streak in November, preparing for a crucial road game against the Jets, who were hot, Belichick had a decision to make regarding his depleted and ineffective secondary.
Players were injured. Replacements were not doing the job. So Belichick turned to Edelman, listed as a 5-foot-10 wide receiver, to start playing situational defense in the secondary. It was a first for Edelman; he had never played defense in his three seasons with the Patriots or in three years at Kent State.
“I was cool with it,” Edelman said. “They just said, ‘You’re in defensive meetings today.’ That’s all they say. That’s how it is around here. But I enjoy playing football, and anytime you can contribute to the team — that’s what you’re here for. That’s what I like doing.”
And thus was born the N.F.L.’s latest throwback — an honest-to-goodness two-way player. His practice week is like no one else’s on the team, as he darts between offensive and defensive meetings on a daily basis.
In the Patriots’ 23-20 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in the A.F.C. championship game, Edelman was in for 54 snaps, 27 on offense and 27 on defense, according to research from ESPN.
His college coach, Doug Martin, saw Edelman, his former quarterback, on defense and said: “It surprised me that the Patriots did that. But it didn’t surprise me that he did that. He can do anything.”
Belichick said he turned to Edelman because of the rash of injuries in the secondary and because he thought Edelman’s skills would work well on either side of the ball.
“He’s strong, he’s quick, he’s got good toughness,” Belichick said. “Some of the things that you want for the defender are the same things that he has a receiver. Julian has those skills to be able to compete at that position for the same reasons he can do that on offense.”
Edelman played both ways over those final eight games, all New England victories, starting with a 37-16 drubbing of the Jets on Nov. 13. He made his first tackle stopping LaDainian Tomlinson. He had four tackles against the Eagles, including one in the open field on Vince Young to prevent a touchdown, and five against the Bills in the season finale. He had 14 tackles in those eight games and has had one in each of the two playoff games.
During that same period, he caught only one pass, but returned 14 punts, including a 72-yarder for a touchdown, and returned two kickoffs (a duty that since has been ceded to Danny Woodhead). Here’s what he has yet to do with the Patriots: attempt a pass. He threw for nearly 5,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in three years at Kent State, so it could be only a matter of time before Belichick asks Edelman to do that as well. Maybe even in Super Bowl XLVI?
“No one is surprised at anything around here,” Edelman said.
That Edelman is even in the Patriots’ picture is a testament to his versatility and to the creative thinking that has characterized the Belichick era. Edelman was a star high school quarterback in California, but, as he put it: “I was maybe 5-7, 160 pounds, so junior college was the only option. I was a real late bloomer.”
In 2006, Martin thought he needed a new quarterback at Kent State and scoured the junior-college scene in California for a ready-to-play signal caller. One name continually surfaced: Julian Edelman at San Mateo Junior College. Martin had to explain to Edelman the whole Kent State package, from its location (“He had never heard of it and had no clue where it was,” Martin said of the university in Ohio) to its rather underwhelming history (two winning seasons in the previous 25 years.)
But Martin gave Edelman what Edelman wanted: a chance to start. Boise State was also in the picture, but it wanted Edelman to stay in junior college another year. So Edelman went to Kent State, where he started for three years.
“He went up to the guy who had started the year before and told him, ‘I’m getting ready to take your job,’ ” Martin said. “And that’s exactly what he did. He changed the whole personality of our team. He really could have played anywhere. But we wanted the ball in his hands.”
Kent State won six games in Edelman’s first year, the most since 1987. By the time Edelman was a senior, Martin started using him on special teams, concluding that would be the only way he would have a chance to play in the N.F.L.
“I certainly wasn’t planning on playing quarterback in the N.F.L.,” Edelman said. “I was too small. But I like the idea of doing whatever you can do, the more versatility the better.”
The Patriots worked out Edelman three times, then chose him in the seventh round of the 2009 draft, 232nd over all. Five months later, he was starting against the Jets in the second game of the season and catching eight passes for 98 yards.
He subbed for Wes Welker in the 2009 playoff game against Baltimore. He set a franchise record with a 94-yard punt return against Miami in the 2010 season. He is the franchise leader in average punt-return yardage for a season and for a career.
This season, he has been recognized by the team for his work leading into both Denver games (when he played the role of Tim Tebow), earning the coveted “black shirt,” given to the player who best prepared the team for its next game. He earned another black jersey earlier this season.
He is probably the only New England player who will be studying film of Eli Manning and of Antrel Rolle this week. For someone who was taken by surprise over the dual roles, he seems to have made the adjustment just fine.