Last September, Tom Brady played the entire first half of the Patriots fourth preseason game. When Bill Belichick was asked about the risk of having a future Hall of Famer in harm's way with a slew of end-of-roster players, he replied, “You can’t take insurance out on players,” Belichick said. “You play football, you play football. I don’t know how you get better at playing football without playing football. You stand around and talk about it all day, I don’t think that really makes you a better player. At some point you’ve got to get out there and play.”
Even though Brady was in a far different situation last year - he was about to begin serving his four game Deflategate suspension and wouldn't be needed until October - I can't imagine Bill Belichick's stance will be any different now that wide receiver Julian Edelman's been laid low by a non-contact knee injury that has the makings of a torn ACL.
In a text message, Edelman promised he would be "relentless" regardless of the diagnosis, but had no comment on the injury.
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That Edelman went down in a game that means nothing ushers in the conversation about playing key players in the preseason. We have it every year - we had it Thursday night on Boston Sports Tonight. I feel the same way after the loss of Edelman as I did before the injury: players play.
Edelman could have just as easily been injured making a similar cut in the first quarter of the first regular season game. It wasn't like he was out there covering kicks or running routes over the middle against third-string guys trying to make the team late in the game. He made a hard cut and his knee gave out.
It's a lamentable result either way.
And it's going to have far-reaching impact on the Patriots offense. We've had the chicken-egg conversation about Edelman and Rob Gronkowski many times - which player is more important to the overall success of the Patriots offense. I believe it's Edelman and that's not just because of what occurred last season when the Patriots won the Super Bowl even though Gronk played just six games.
Look back a year further to 2015. The Patriots were 9-0 after they beat the Giants in November, but they lost Edelman in that game with a broken foot.
The team went 3-4 the rest of the way and their third-down conversion rate went from 48.7 percent with Edelman in the lineup down to 32 percent over the final seven games.
Even though he returned for the playoffs, Edelman was still struggling with the foot and needed offseason surgery to repair it. They missed his ability to uncover during the 20-18 AFC Championship loss at Denver.
He has been the straw the stirs the drink for the Patriots offense since 2013. The Patriots have other available options for Brady with Edelman down - Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Hogan weren't around in 2015, not to mention downfield threat Brandin Cooks.
But the chemistry between Brady and Edelman built over eight-plus seasons is unique. No player on their offense can replicate it. The Patriots also lose a little of their identity with Edelman down. He is one of the few wide receivers in the league that is the point of the spear in terms of toughness and attitude. Steve Smith brought it. Anquan Boldin brought it. Edelman brings it. His intensity and competitiveness can't be replicated.
The last time the team was without Edelman, they went into their deepest offensive funk in several seasons. They'll figure out a way to get along without him. But his absence will have far-reaching impact.