EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

September 13, 2006

Trying to make sense of Branch, Patriots

Bill Burt

FOXBORO - You've got questions about the New England Patriots, Deion Branch, the perplexing contract dispute and his eventual trade.

You are not alone. So do I.

Instead of picking sides - I would pick Branch's right now - I will make an attempt, via your 10 probable questions and the best plausible answers, to answer them as I see them.

Why did it come to this?

Two worlds collided.

Branch signed a longer than normal rookie contract (five years) for a second-round pick and wanted to be paid like a free agent, despite having a year left on his contract.

The Patriots would not throw away the final year of that rookie deal, for $1 million, and wouldn't give him the $30-plus million, including the guaranteed $12 million signing bonus, he was demanding.

Do you disagree with Branch's desire to leave?

No. He's a little guy at 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds. I don't fault a player for wanting out, especially when you've been underpaid as he has been.

While, yes, he was under contract, he is better than your average "good" player and deserved a little extra, considering his performance in the bigger games.

Do you understand the Patriots side?

Yes. That's why this is not a no-brainer here. The Patriots have a system and philosophy. It has worked.

The problem, as I believe they saw it, was that if they caved in to Branch, they would have guys lined up next offseason, including the underpaid guys like Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel and Rodney Harrison.

And then there is center Dan Koppen, who is making fourth-round money and also would have a case to be paid in the $4 million range immediately.

Doesn't this remind you of the Lawyer Milloy saga, because of the timing and fight over money?

That was my first thought. To this day, I still disagree with the timing of the Milloy release - five days before the opener - but the Patriots finished 14-2 and won their second Super Bowl. How can you argue with that success?

But the more I thought about this scenario, it reminded me of the Patriots letting Curtis Martin go after the 1997. Martin, like Branch, was not a first-round pick, thus he did not get the multimillion dollar bonus. And Martin, like Branch, was one of the nicest, respectful players the franchise has ever had.

The Patriots got a first- and third-round pick for Martin, who went to the Jets, which seemed like a lot. But in the end, the Patriots got burned as Martin indeed became a Hall of Famer.

Is Branch worth the six years and $39 million the Seahawks paid him?

Let's just say I wouldn't have given him that much money. I think he is very good. That is the kind of money you pay to the elite receivers. Branch is close, but I don't believe, because of his size and penchant for injury, he is in the top tier of receivers.

The Seahawks philosophy is a little different. They don't look at this as a long-term project of taming the salary cap. They want to win a Super Bowl and win one now. Reigning MVP Shaun Alexander is 29 with probably two years of greatness remaining.

If they win a Super Bowl, yes, Branch is worth it. So I'll have to get back to you on that one.

Can the Patriots win a Super Bowl without Branch?

Yes. But will they as currently constituted? I have to say no.

The wild card here is rookie Chad Jackson. The word is he wowed the coaches during the two minicamps for rookies and veterans, but considering all he has to learn, it appears to be too much.

Without their two best receivers - Branch and David Givens - from the last three seasons, the passing game has to drop a notch. The addition of Laurence Maroney will upgrade the running game, but Tom Brady's performance will be key.

Why would the Patriots not give Brady the best weapons possible?

It is the question I would like answered. Brady is the best quarterback in the NFL. With Givens gone and the possibility of Branch making waves, the planning should have been better.

This is a Super Bowl team without a Super Bowl wide receiver.

What about the first-round pick?

What about it? I agree it is a lot for a wide receiver. I agree the future is bright for the Patriots, especially if Maroney is as good as I believe he will be. But first-round picks are for general managers with job security.

What will happen to the Patriots passing game?

I wish I knew more about Doug Gabriel, who the Patriots received for a fifth-round choice from Oakland, and the same for Jackson. Reche Caldwell appears to be a No. 3 receiver on a good day. And these days Troy Brown is a No. 3 receiver at his absolute best.

That means there are openings for the top two spots.

I see the Patriots throwing more to the tight ends (Daniel Graham and Ben Watson), something we saw on Sunday. But by Week 8, both will be beaten to a pulp without that deep threat.

Again, Maroney changes everything. He is electric. But there are too many question marks for a Super Bowl contender.

Does this change your opinion of Bill Belichick?

No. In fact, to the contrary. It solidifies what I've said many times before.

The man has conviction, which is a character trait I appreciate in a person nearly as much as kindness.

He has done everything he promised in 2000, the day he took over the job. He said he'd make the team tougher. He said he'd find players that play more than one position. And he said he'd eventually build a winner.

He is the best football coach in the world. He probably is the best judge of talent the sport of football has ever seen, too.

And he doesn't care what we think.

Think about it. If he signed Adam Vinatieri and then signed Branch to the contracts they eventually got, not one person would have complained. It would have been easier for him and the franchise.

I don't remember Belichick ever choosing the path of least resistance.

Bill Burt is executive sports editor of Eagle-Tribune Publishing. E-mail him at bburt@eagletribune.com.