Nothing's been handed to Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman. His opportunities and achievements alike have been the fruits of his incredible labor, his stunning adaptability, his tough skin and his mental preparedness.
For the last five years, this 27-year-old kid has worked tirelessly to stay relevant in an ever-changing Patriots offense. As a former seventh-round draft pick who's currently playing on a one-year contact, he's a veteran who's still aiming to prove his worth.
Edelman's place on the team has been anything but secure. Time and time again, he's been eclipsed by former Patriots receivers like Randy Moss and Wes Welker, along with former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez and current tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Though Edelman's made strides up the food chain over the years, he's only done so in spurts. His position on the depth chart, along with his playing time and his overall role on the team, has never really been written in pen, only in pencil.
This much can be scrawled in ink: Edelman's existing skill as a receiver hasn't stopped the team's multi-year search for additional offense from the outside—an endless hunt for a big-time playmaking receiver to join the roster.
Endless pleas have been made for someone, anyone, to come stretch the field for this offense (which has looked downright awful in their last few playoff losses and has been inconsistent this season).
These endless pleas make sense. After all, how is it that Tom Brady doesn't have a single stud player at wide receiver, while everyone from Matt Stafford to Ben Roethlisberger to Andy Dalton has one? How is it that Eli Manning and Matt Ryan have more than one?
How is it that Brady, the three-time Super Bowl champion and two-time NFL MVP, wound up without any?
There's some warped math here, which has angered Patriots fans to no end.
And so, the rightful pleas were made. And you've got to imagine Edelman heard each plea and wanted to respond to them all with: "Hey, guys, I'm right here."
But Edelman's never really been viewed as a legitimate deep threat.
There are two reasons for this.
The first reason, of course, is that Edelman's fragility hasn't made him a reliable option as a stud. He was on the verge of a breakout season last year before a foot injury derailed his season. It was yet another example of the kid's inability to stay on the field long enough to prove that he is capable of being "the man."
The second reason is a little more abstract, but it is just as true. For the longest time, Edelman's been considered "the next Wes Welker," which has consistently posed a problem of identity for the young protege receiver.
When Welker was in New England, he had a reputation as a mere slot guy who couldn't make the big play; a chain-mover who couldn't intimidate or manipulate or alter defenses; a stud who couldn't win the big one.
Edelman's de facto persona as "the next Welker" bludgeoned his identity. Basically, the thinking has been: "If Welker's better than Edelman, and Welker isn't good enough, than how will Edelman be good enough?"
And so, through virtually no fault of his own, Edelman wound up absorbing some of the perception tied to Welker. Unfair? Absolutely. But it happened.
Consciously or subconsciously, the pupil became associated with the teacher to a hazy extent, giving the perception that Edelman was just a slot receiver of a lesser caliber than his mentor, a poorer work sculpted in his master's image, even though he'd never really been given a shot to be anything else or anything better.
And so, the general thinking was that the Patriots still needed a big-time receiver. And so, even with Edelman still hanging out on the roster, the Patriots continued their epic manhunt for a vertical threat, or at least, someone who felt more like a vertical threat.
The 2011 season saw the failure of the Chad Ochocinco experiment, along with the beginning of the end of the Welker experiment. Then, 2012 saw the failure of the Brandon Lloyd experiment.
In the summer of 2013, the hunt continued with more experimentation. The team drafted receivers Aaron Dobson and Josh Boyce and then scooped up undrafted free agent Kenbrell Thompkins. They even signed receiver Danny Amendola as a free agent, who was known as "the next Welker" to a hardcore extent, even more than Edelman.
And through all of this experimentation, Edelman never complained. He never threw a tantrum, he never quit on his team, he never stopped giving less than everything he had to earn his rightful place.
When the team asked him to be their return ace on special teams, he did it; in fact, he did it so spectacularly that he returned a punt for a touchdown in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
And when they asked him to sacrifice his development as a receiver to play defensive back through 2011, he did that, too (and he did it pretty well).
Tom Brady summarized Edelman best when he said this last October, via John Beattie of NESN.com:
Nobody works harder than Julian. It's hard when you're playing behind Wes for all these years. You're just not going to get a lot of opportunity because Wes was such a great player, was durable and Jules never got a chance. Now he's got it and it doesn't look like he's slowing down at all.
Edelman has thrived in this post-Welker existence. But it isn't just post-Welker; it's post-everyone. Edelman has so brilliantly outlasted all of those receivers and tight ends and running backs who previously smothered him on the depth chart.
This kid has endured. Credit that to his hard work and his ability to constantly reinvent himself, using his dedication to the team as his north star.
And that previous reputation as a short-game chain-mover? Nonsense. Not a playmaker? Ridiculous.
Against the Bills in Week 1, Edelman had a long reception of 35 yards, en route to 79 total yards and two touchdowns in a tight contest.
Against the Jets in Week 2, with Amendola absent, Edelman stepped up with 13 critical catches for 78 yards, certainly playing the most crucial role in helping the Patriots pull that one out by a hair.
Against the Falcons in Week 4, he had a long reception of 44 yards, en route to a total of 118 yards on just seven catches.
And against the Saints in Week 6, he posted a long reception of 23 yards, on his way to 57 total yards on the afternoon.
In that stunning game, Edelman notched 110 yards on nine catches, along with a long gain of 43 yards and a pair of timely touchdowns (one of which was a 5-yard fadeaway catch, the other was a 14-yard ankle-breaker with a leap into the endzone).
Edelman's ascension as the key to New England's 2013 championship run makes total sense. In his contrasting manner as both a savvy veteran and a brand new leader, he's at once old and new. That's a recipe for a spark, a flame, a forward-churning fire.
He embodies the remnants of memorable years past and represents the hopeful future of what's ahead. In doing so, he links different incarnations of a team that has, to this point, been unable to bridge that gap. He's the bridge.
He's an anchor for a team that desperately needs stability and reliability for a Super Bowl run, but he's also an engine for motivational surprise and forward momentum. You need both for a championship march, because getting there takes consistent guts and a hard spine, but it also takes luck, shock and surprise.
Tom Brady described this important November/December stretch, via Christopher Price, as "when the football season starts," so it makes total sense that Edelman chose this moment to emerge. We're seeing a "work in progress" finally become what he was meant to be: a finished piece.
This is Edelman's time.