By Alex Barth, 985TheSportsHub.com
Once November started, Gunner Olszewski’s role with the Patriots began to decrease. Two weeks ago, he was pulled from the kick return unit, and entering Sunday he’d played just one offensive snap over the previous three games. He needed to start making plays.
Last week against Arizona may have been the spark. What should have been an 82-yard punt return touchdown was nullified by a questionable illegal block call. Still, it appears that play sparked something in the second-year UDFA.
Sunday was Olszewski’s best performance as a Patriot so far. He returned a second-quarter punt for a touchdown, the first of his career. Later in the game, he came within 17 yards of doubling that effort, with a 61-yard return. The next drive, he caught the Patriots’ final touchdown of the day – a 38-yard seam play from Jarrett Stidham. To put the cap on things, he recorded a special teams tackle on the ensuing kickoff.
“You know, it feels good,” Olszewski said of his performance after the game. “It makes you – all the work you put in is paying off. Staying late, getting there early. It feels good. That’s the best way I can put it.”
Was there any hesitation for Olszewski, given what happened last week?
“A little bit, you know? But when I turned around, it felt like like half the team was running on the field. I figured, you know, there’s probably no laundry,” he said. “But yeah, I took a little double peek and I was messing with Anfernee [Jennings, who was called for the penalty last week]. I was like, ‘Man, I’m glad you weren’t on the field.'”
With the score, Olszewski became the 343rd player all-time to score a touchdown for the Patriots. He’s the eight to return a punt for a touchdown, and just the fourth to ever record a receiving touchdown and punt return touchdown in the same game, joining Stanley Morgan, Irving Fryar, and Julian Edelman.
After the game, when that list was read to him, Olszewski offered a quick correction.
“I had a tackle too,” he reminded reporters. “Julian always talks about a game where he had a punt return [touchdown] and a tackle. That’s pretty cool to be in company of those guys. I follow Julian around quite a bit and try to do things that he did. So that’s a special group, like you said. So I’m honored, I guess.”
Edelman actually had two such games, coming in 2011 and 2012. Back then he was a return specialist, and was used rarely if at all on offense – a similar role to the one Olszewski has now. With Olszewski closely following and emulating Edelman at this stage, will these kind of similarities continue? How much will the 24-year-old converted Bemidji State cornerback continue to follow the path of the 34-year-old converted Kent State quarterback?
Given Edelman’s age, health, and contract situation (there’s a team-friendly out at the end of this year), it’s fair to begin to wonder what happens to his role going forward. Of course, Olszewski has hardly shown the receiving prowess of the three-time Super Bowl champion. However, there are clearly parallels between what he has done to this point in his NFL career sitting behind Edelman, and what Edelman had done through age 24, sitting behind Wes Welker.
Even Edelman’s attitude seems to be rubbing off on Olszewski. Asked what his immediate thought was after scoring his first NFL touchdown, Olszewski answered, “Honestly, my first thought was ‘I’ve got to go cover a kick now, so I better get my breath and I got to go cover on kickoff.'” That’s a very Julian Edelman thing to say.
Olszewski certainly has a long way to go as a receiver, but it would have been true to say the same about a 26-year-old Julian Edelman on November 18, 2012, when he caught five passes for 58 yards and a touchdown, and returned a punt for a TD. At that point, Edelman has less than 100 career receptions through three seasons. The next season, Edelman caught 105 balls after becoming a regular part of the Patriots’ offense.
While their early career paths may be similar, the environment Olszewski is in right now is undoubtedly different than the one Edelman was in before his breakout year, and allowed him to become the monster offensive presence he was for three championship teams. Different quarterback, different offense, even the league itself had different priorities offensively. Things are hardly assured for Olszewski next season. What he showed on Sunday though, was a strong case that he deserves to stay in the team’s plans, returning punts as he continues to work to become a better receiver.
Through the last 20 years of dominance, you’ll find a collection of what can best be described as “(player) games” in the Patriots’ history. Games who’s stand out memory is one player, for one game, taking over. The prime example of this is The Jonas Gray Game in 2014, when Gray ran rampant over the Colts for 200 yards and four touchdowns in just his fourth NFL game. There’s also The Mike Cloud Game, The Eric Lee Game, The Brian Tyms Game, etc.
So will Sunday go down as The Gunner Olszewski Game, the shinning moment of his career? Or was it the genesis of the next step?
Alex Barth is a writer and digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Looking for a podcast guest? Let him know on Twitter @RealAlexBarth or via email at Alexander.Barth@bbgi.com.