October 13, 2010
Happy Days Are Here Again In Foxborough
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
The number three receiver in Super Bowl history is coming back home.
Look it up. Only Jerry Rice and Andre Reed had more catches in Super Bowl history, and they set their records in an awful lot more games than Deion Branch. Tom Brady won Super Bowl MVP in his first two big games, but Branch took the honors in Super Bowl XXXIX with 11 catches for 133 yards. He had 10 catches for 143 yards and a touchdown a year earlier against Carolina. Branch became a classic Patriot, gaining a reputation for playing big in the biggest games despite being only 5-foot-9.
But not big enough was his salary, and in 2006 he forced a trade to the Seattle Seahawks in return for a first round pick. Four years later, he comes back home to Foxborough, four years older, but, the Patriots hope, still mostly the great receiver he had become in his four seasons as a Patriot.
With the trade of Randy Moss to Minnesota, Branch has a chance to reinvigorate his career which seemed to come to a stall in Seattle. Since the Patriots chose him in the second round of the 2002 draft out of Louisville, Branch has been hailed as a clutch receiver who makes the most of his small frame. He is certainly the antithesis of Moss in many ways, but the Patriots enjoyed more success with him than after he left. Obviously he isn't the main reason why the Patriots haven't won the Super Bowl since he left, but you cannot ignore a stat Michael Felger of CSNNE's Sports Tonight presented on a recent show: The Patriots were 7-1 in the playoffs with Branch until he was traded, the only loss being the 2005 season-ender in Denver.
So, does this really mean that happy days are back in Foxborough?
Focusing on the past might not be the best idea, as most observers think that Branch's best days are behind him. In four-plus seasons as a Seahawk, Branch caught 213 passes for 2,744 yards. But his best season as a Seahawk, his first one in 2006, fell short of his two best seasons in New England. Branch has a long history of being injured and missing games, and in his four complete seasons in Seattle, he never played in a full 16 games in any season.
What Brady will need to do is to find out quick what his former favorite receiver can still do, and go from there. He won't stretch the field like Moss did, but he really doesn't need to. The Patriots were a good offense before Moss got here, they will simply operate differently than before. Whereas defenses had to pay attention to Moss as a deep threat, Branch will be more like Wes Welker and find ways to get open, over deep routes instead of slot routs.
In the AFC Championship Game of 2004, Branch scored two touchdowns in a 41-27 rout of the Steelers. The first score was a 60-yard bomb from Brady, the second on a 23-yard end around run. Branch may still be able to sneak in behind defenses and haul in a long bomb now and then, but not be a threat on every play to do that like Moss. As for the end arounds, it was his second such run in that aforementioned playoff game, and whether or not he can still be effective on end arounds and reverses remains to be seen.
One area Branch always excelled in was his ability to be clutch. While his regular season numbers don't jump out at you, he remains one of the best postseason receivers in team history. He won't be the number one guy like he was, but if given a role where he contributes to the whole instead of being the primary go-to guy, he can excel and bring back some of the great things he had during his previous stint here. He should have little trouble regaining his rapport and timing with Brady, but how much mileage is on the tires remains a question.
This raises the question: Why was Branch allowed to leave in the first place? Sure, Moss came in, and he and Brady set all those records in 2007. Moss should have caught the game-winning pass in Super Bowl XLII. But that was about it. Was trading a Super Bowl MVP and an integral part of two Super Bowl wins for some big numbers and an almost perfect season worth it?
Branch becomes part of a group of former Patriots who really should still be with the team. Included in this group are Asante Samuel, Richard Seymour and perhaps Mike Vrabel. Samuel left because, like Branch, he seemingly priced himself out of town. Seymour was traded because his 2003 spat with Bill Belichick finally reached full fruition. Vrabel? Perhaps the Patriots think he is too old, but he looks good in Romeo Crennel's defense in Kansas City.
Branch is now back here, and sounds like he wished he never left. The Patriot Way dictates that the system is better than the individual players, and most any player is expendable. Branch was traded because he demanded more money than the Patriots wanted to pay him and made it untenable to keep him around, which seems to be the direction Logan Mankins is heading in. But maybe Branch is thinking that he should have shut up in 2006 and just let the Patriots take care of him when the time was right.
In hindsight, the Patriots really have to stop being penny pinchers with players who are their core anchors, or perhaps the Patriots need to do a better job of identifying who their core anchors are. Branch, Samuel, Seymour, and Vrabel could all still be here if the Patriots didn't act so miserly. Either that, or Belichick is being far too misguided in his internal beliefs regarding the system versus the player.
Here's hoping that Branch has at least something left in the tank. The Patriots lost four prime Branch years, and Branch wasted those four years in a Seattle program where the best asset they have is their fan base and a terrific stadium. Branch has only two postseason appearances in Seattle, both in 2006 (he was injured in 2007 and missed both postseason games), catching four passes in each game.
Branch won't have David Givens on the other side of the line. He won't have Troy Brown in the slot. But he will have Welker, someone he never worked with before. Ditto for Brandon Tate, Julian Edelman, Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. Branch will fit in with this crowd better than Moss did, and assuming Branch can avoid the injury bug, the Patriot offense will still function well, just differently than before.
If you still miss Moss, don't forget that a Super Bowl MVP just came back to town. Brady will still make nice about Moss in public. But in private, Brady has to be thrilled to death. Brady and Branch are back together. How can't you think that happy days are here again?
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