When the New England Patriots lost wide receiver Julian Edelman to a foot injury in November, their offense went into the tank. His return was seen as the potential difference-maker in the Patriots rediscovering their success on offense.
In the team's 27-20 win over the Kansas City Chiefs last Saturday, Edelman proved the expectations weren't too high.
But during No. 11's hiatus, quarterback Tom Brady was without one of his most trusted targets on short passes. As a result, the pressure on Brady increased, putting the Patriots into a tough situation: They couldn't achieve as much success on short throws without Edelman but couldn't switch to a more vertical passing game without good pass protection from the offensive line.
Edelman's presence alleviates both problems.
Brady's average time in the pocket went down considerably with the receiver's return. According to Pro Football Focus, Brady averaged 2.13 seconds in the pocket against the Chiefs, compared to 2.45 seconds in the pocket in the seven games without Edelman.
It was fair to be skeptical of Edelman's ability to snap back into the offense like a puzzle piece, given the length of his absence and the nature of his injury. However, the Patriots got him involved early, with Brady hitting him on 3rd-and-10 during the game's first series.
Edelman bobbled the pass on an out route, but he showed great concentration to trap it against his body and to reach back to make the catch for a first down:
And that wasn't it. Brady threaded the needle on multiple occasions.
He hit Edelman, with the receiver finding a soft spot in coverage among three Chiefs defenders, and he gave Edelman a low pass down the sideline, assuring only No. 11 could make a play on the ball. Give Brady credit for some accurate passes, but give Edelman credit as well for outstanding concentration to make these catches in traffic.
The former Kent State quarterback finished with team highs in targets (16), receptions (10) and receiving yards (100). Nobody seemed to know how close Edelman would be to 100 percent, or how effective he would be, but he answered those questions.
Even that wasn't good enough for the Patriots' No. 1 target.
"I dropped some balls that I shouldn't have," he said, "[because I was] trying to do stuff, trying to make a move before I caught it, but I just had to slow down and get back to the fundamentals, and I'll be working those out this week."
|Patriots offense, with and without Edelman|
|Patriots offense||Weeks 1-10||Weeks 11-17||vs. Chiefs|
|3rd down %||48.7||32||50|
|Red zone %||35.4||19||37.5|
|Sources: Pro-Football-Reference.com; ProFootballFocus.com|
But these anecdotes of Brady's rhythm and chemistry with Edelman—and even his final stat line—don't do justice to what he means to the Patriots offense. It's Donald-and-Hillary levels of polar opposites.
Before Edelman's injury, Brady ranked fourth in the league with a 67.8 completion percentage and No. 1 with a 111.1 passer rating. Without Edelman, he ranked 25th with a 59.1 completion percentage and 17th with a passer rating of 88.8. With his No. 1 target back, Brady completed 66.7 percent of his throws in the divisional round and earned a 103.5 passer rating.
NESN's Doug Kyed noted his importance to the team:
Doug Kyed @DougKyed
Pretty amazing how much Julian Edelman changes the Patriots' offense.2016-1-17 00:55:10
Edelman's presence impacts the offense as a whole.
Third downs, red-zone offense, short passing, pass protection—it all gets better when Edelman is on the field. And it will all need to be better this week against the Denver Broncos, who feature a dominant pass rush (league-high 52 sacks) and third-down defense (35.2 percent, ranked seventh in the NFL) in 2015.
But for the first nine games of the season, with Edelman at full health, the Patriots were at or near the top of the league in almost every passing statistic and many others. Last Saturday against the Chiefs, they proved Edelman's return is enough to help put them back on that level.
This Sunday in the AFC Championship Game on the road against the Broncos, they'll have a chance to prove it again.
Brady is the engine that makes the offense run, but he can't operate at full capacity without the oil that is Edelman, who makes it all go smoothly. For seven weeks, it looked like the Patriots were stuck in neutral. With Edelman at receiver, the offense can kick it into overdrive.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.