By: Bob George/BosSports.net
August 27, 2006

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FOXBOROUGH -- Whatever Deion Branch must have felt after winning the MVP in the Super Bowl two years ago, he probably feels the opposite right now.

The Patriots extended an olive branch this week. The question now is to whom it was extended to, Branch himself or Ben Watson. One day after the Patriots granted a revolutionary act of emancipation to the holdout receiver, the Patriots once again put on an offensive display against an NFC opponent with the first units out there. This question now is begged: Unlike Mo Vaughn some ten years ago, is the price going down each day for Branch?

Make what you will of a 41-0 preseason win over a Washington Redskin squad minus Clinton Portis. It was still a friendly game. This is a team the Patriots have not beaten in the regular season since 1972 (it was pointed out by Mike Reiss of the Globe that the Redskins are the only team the Patriots have never defeated in the Bob Kraft era). But the Patriots totally outclassed the Redskins when it was first unit against first unit, second unit against second, and so on.

The third preseason game is the "dress rehearsal" game. If this is a foreboding of the regular season, the Patriots are good to go right now.

And that includes without Deion Branch, if necessary.

This column has maintained that Watson is the biggest reason why Branch is not a major worry for Bill Belichick right now. He only further cemented that mindset at Gillette Stadium Saturday night with eight catches for 97 yards, easily leading both teams in each category. Washington had no answer for Watson; the only way they stopped him is when they held him (two penalties called on his defenders) or if he stopped himself (one drop). Otherwise, Watson was literally undefendable, and the Redskins may not be the only team to be suffering such a fate.

Overall, there was nothing at all for Joe Gibbs to like Saturday night. Nothing at all went right for the Redskins other than a few inconsequential good gainers. John Hall had a 23-yard field goal attempt blocked. A Mike Rumph interception was called back when Kenny Wright was guilty of holding Troy Brown in the end zone. The Patriots registered seven sacks of Redskin quarterbacks, three of them by first stringers.

All this aside, the Patriot offense is stealing the show this preseason. The Patrick Cobbs story is a nice sidebar (92 yards on 13 carries and two long gainers), though his role with the club beyond August remains unclear. Brown is enjoying somewhat of a rejuvenation borne out of necessity, as he grabbed four passes for 64 yards. The combination of Corey Dillon and rookie Laurence Maroney is a developing story, and it is becoming more and more interesting with each game.

But it is Watson who should go down as the star of the preseason so far (though many fans might cast their vote for Cobbs), the man who is right now the standard bearer for The Patriot Way. Branch may want a dartboard with Watson's face on it for his playroom. Watson is doing a great deal to devalue Branch with every great game he has and every matchup problem he continues to present.

Branch was granted permission by the Patriots on Friday to seek a trade and negotiate a new deal, and to do it within one week. This move is being hailed by many as a genius move, despite Ron Borges of the Globe offering up his perfunctory devil's advocate view of anything Belichick. It is totally stacked in favor of the Patriots, in that they can control which team Branch goes to, they can literally name their price if Branch indeed does find a suitor, and it shuts up Branch and his agent, Jason Chayut when they keep jabbering over how much Branch is really worth.

Branch continues to insist on Reggie Wayne money. But this is a case of Branch trying to cash in on great performances in two games, nothing more. Branch happens to be the third leading receiver in Super Bowl history with 21 catches (trailing only Jerry Rice and Andre Reed). But in reality Branch is a receiver who, in the regular season, has continued his college habit of always getting hurt (2005 was the first time in his four-year career that he played in all 16 games; in 2004, when he went on to be MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX, he played only nine regular season games).

Make no mistake, Branch is a great receiver whom the Patriots would dearly love to get back into the fold. But his contractual demands do not square with his career record. Branch is an intelligent, well-spoken man who ought to know that he is getting bad advice from his agent. Branch's head may simply be filled with too many dollar signs, and he is pushing this holdout despite possibly knowing better.

The only other redeeming factor which may be driving Branch is that he wants to be the next Richard Seymour and not the next Adam Vinatieri. Seymour was shown the big bucks last year, but Seymour is the best in the NFL at his position and he deserved the money. On the other hand, Vinatieri was franchised several times in his Patriot career and grew to hate the Patriots for doing so. Branch may be afraid that he will be similarly franchised, and is taking the necessary steps to quash this before it happens.

Branch and Chayut may have been caught off guard by this offer of artificial emancipation by the Patriots. After some careful thought, they may see it as a golden opportunity to present and prove their case. The problem here is that Patriots do hold all the cards, as they must approve a trade before letting him go. What would be really amusing is that the Patriots could pull off an NBA-ish sign-and-trade deal if something came along that Belichick and Scott Pioli really liked.

But what the Patriots are banking on is that Branch will find out during this week that the market for him is not what they thought it would be. By doing it now instead of earlier, Branch may have less leverage due to teams wanting to downsize right now instead of taking on more salary. Should Branch and Chayut come up empty, the timing on this "release" might stick in their craw for the long term.

And that is where one point of Borges' Saturday article comes true. Should Branch cave in and play out this year with no new deal, knowing that he will be franchised after the year if he does not sign a new long-term deal, he will be a disgruntled malcontent who may not be counted on to play to his fullest extent. Knowing what the Patriots did to Vinatieri, he may see this pattern coming on and be completely miserable. It truly is an unfortunate impasse between the Patriots and Branch, and right now it may be an unwinnable battle for Branch.

But not for the Patriots. Just as long as nothing bad happens to Watson, there is no problem for the players who are there.


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