By Mary Paoletti
FOXBORO -- In a game where New England was already playoff bound, Julian Edelman still had a lot to prove.
His story used to be about a transition from Kent State quarterback to Patriots receiver. Now, in Week 17 of his sophomore season, it's about a late return to relevance.
Edelman recorded 72 receiving yards, 112 return yards and 13 rushing yards in New England's 38-7 win over Miami. It was his breakout game during a season in which he totaled just 4 receptions for 14 yards prior to Sunday. Those numbers were a pittance compared to previous expectations, but a lot has happened since he was drafted in 2009.
It didn't take long after Edelman's arrival for comparisons to receiver Wes Welker to fly around. Except the new kid was a little bit bigger and even faster than the Patriots stellar wideout, so the rookie got his reps.
Despite suffering a broken arm in October, Edelman played in 11 games for the Patriots in 2009, starting seven of them. In the second game of the season -- his first chance, as Welker was out with a knee injury -- the wideout wowed with 8 catches for 98 yards against the Jets.
For the season, he recorded 37 receptions for 359 yards, including a 10-catch, 103-yard effort against Houston in Week 17. A strong start in the 2010 preseason seemed to be the sign of good things still to come.
But Edelman got injured again. He played just six snaps in the 2010 Patriots' preseason game at Atlanta before leaving with an injured foot that would sideline him for two weeks.
When he returned, it wasn't exactly in a blaze of glory. In a Week 2 matchup with the Jets, Brady fired a potential TD catch his way before halftime. Edelman -- who had burned the coverage -- dropped the catchable ball. The Patriots lost, 28-14.
In New England's October 17 win over the Ravens, Edelman left the game in the fourth quarter with a head injury. He got smashed in the shadow of the goal line and dropped another pass.
Down 27-21 to Green Bay two weeks ago, the Patriots were threatening on third-and-eight. But Brady's pass to Edelman -- another catchable ball -- was dropped. The Patriots had to settle for a field goal.
Would you have trusted him if you were Tom Brady? Especially in the red zone?
The QB barely even had to think about Edelman. When Randy Moss moved out and Deion Branch moved back in, New England's offense shifted to feature more two tight-end sets with Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Edelman was fourth on the receiving depth chart and wasn't given many more opportunities to shine.
He was buried.
To catch a few balls on Sunday, well . . . it had to feel like the first gasp of air from out of the grave.
"It was difficult,'' he said after the game. "I was still adjusting to coming in for certain roles and I'm still adjusting. I still have to get better every day doing my job and coming in here and going in one play, maybe, in the fourth quarter that you hadn't been in all game. You got to make a big catch or you've got to make a first down or run or something."
With coach Bill Belichick sitting Branch and Welker this week, Edelman saw what was in front of him: opportunity.
His 94-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter was a brilliant way to take advantage. It was the first by a Patriot in a regular-season game since Troy Brown returned one 68 yards for a TD at Carolina on Jan. 6, 2002, and the longest in franchise history.
Think the kid plans on reveling in a Week 17 resurrection, though? Think again.
"You gotta move on," he insisted. "You've gotta have a short memory, regardless, if you have a good game or a bad game. It was obviously good to have that opportunity and do some things with it, but there's a lot of plays that I didn't do right. I missed a couple of assignments here and there or a block I should have stayed on longer. So I'm going to watch that film and try to get better off that. "
It's not just stock-modesty. Last Wednesday, Brady discussed the kind of competitor Edelman is. And, from a guy whom Belichick calls a dogged perfectionist, Brady's analysis puts things in perspective.
"If anything, Julian presses maybe too hard," Brady said. "He's really hard on himself. He's very critical of himself all of the time and sometimes I think that some players beat themselves up. Julian is one of those guys because he wants to do it so right. He's a guy who played quarterback in college and everything that he has learned as a receiver has come over the last season-and-a-half."
It's unimaginable how difficult the uncertainty is, how hard it must be to try and gain ground on quicksand.
"It's a survival instinct,'' Edelman explained. "You've got to take advantage of every opportunity that you get and if you don't, the reality of the business is people will go in different directions.
"You can't even worry about your job, though. I'm a confident guy and I always think things are going to go right. I always think that I can do it. You've got to have that kind of approach. 'Cause if you don't, if you don't have that confidence, then you're in the wrong business."
He has certainly lived to fight another day.
Co-captain Alge Crumpler was beaming when asked about Edelman's effort. It seems that, for how obvious Edelman's struggles have been outside the locker room, it's equally obvious to his teammates how hard he's working to improve.
"I'm proud of Jules,'' Crumpler said. "Everybody gets pressed. I don't know what's going through his head but I think he handled the challenge well. He came in and played exceptionally well. It's good for him to get a punt return for a TD on the board that counted, 'cause, you know, he had one earlier a few games ago that got called back, so we were proud to get one for him."
Edelman hasn't let go of that botched play.
In Chicago on Dec. 12, a second quarter three-and-out forced the Bears to punt. Edelman returned it 71 yards for a touchdown. He was so fired up that he leaped triumphantly into the arms of the first New England fans he saw behind the end zone.
A Patriots penalty overturned the score. Though it wasn't Edelman's fault, it was deflating for him.
"I'm not going to lie, I was actually thinking about that,'' he said Sunday with a small smile. "I was thinking, 'I'm going to look like an idiot going up into those stands if there's a flag out there.' But there wasn't, fortunately, and we got the touchdown finally."
It's a word, a point in time, that has more meaning for Edelman tonight than it does for anyone else on the Patriots roster. When asked about his 40-yard catch and run in the first quarter when he battled to cross the goal line and was taken down at the Dolphins' 1-yard line, the question of how much he wanted that touchdown wasn't even punctuated before the receiver started shaking his head.
"Very badly," he said softly. The desire was tangible.
Julian Edelman has been fighting -- often failing -- all season for the trust of his quarterback and the playing time that he once had. That's why it doesn't matter that he has only now stepped forward, late in the season, as his team prepares to enter the playoffs.
Any chance Edelman gets? He's running with it.