Deion Branch never should have gone anywhere.
Sometimes, the lure of moving should be ignored. Sometimes, the grass isn't greener on the other side. If Deion Branch were honest with himself, he'd look himself in the mirror and say, "I should never have left New England four years ago.'' And in the wake of his best game in the NFL since the day he won the Super Bowl MVP nearly six years ago, there was no way the bubbly Branch could avoid the topic of what might have been.
"I think about it a lot,'' he told me over the phone from the Patriots' locker room. "My brother and my father do too. They say, 'You'd be ready to put a gold [Hall of Fame] jacket on if you stayed.' ''
Probably not, but Branch, after catching nine balls for 98 yards and a touchdown Sunday in the Patriots' win over Baltimore, understands what he lost -- and what he may have to gain in the near future.
"It's easy to say that now versus back then, and I wish ... well ... but we can't go back on it. We could easily factor in what went wrong, but right now, but I'm very thankful and honored to be back where I belong, and I'm not looking back or anything,'' Branch said.
What a difference two weeks makes. In New England's last game, Randy Moss got one ball thrown to him and loudly protested being a very tall decoy. That helped prompt the Patriots to trade Moss to Minnesota. In his place came Branch and the speedy Brandon Tate, who, combined, got 17 passes thrown their way by Brady. Nine were completed, all to Branch.
Amazing, because Branch got off a redeye flight from Seattle to Boston last Tuesday at 7:30 a.m., took his physical at 10:30 and was at that afternoon's practice, re-learning the playbook that was largely similar to the one he left. With New England down 20-10 with 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter, Branch trolled the back of the end zone while Brady tried to find other targets from the Ravens' five-yard line.
"I'm the outlet when everything else breaks down,'' Branch said. "I've just got to find a spot to be open.'' After zigging in and zagging out, Branch was open -- and Brady hit him. Then the Pats tied it later in the quarter, forcing overtime. On the last series of OT, Brady found Branch open for 23, putting them near field-goal range. One more 10-yard throw to Branch moved them closer, and the Pats finally got to the Ravens' 17, close enough for the winning field goal 13 minutes into the extra period.
After the game, Belichick found Branch on the field. "Great job!'' he said.
"Thanks for the opportunity,'' Branch said. "Thanks for bringing me back.''
Branch played four years in New England, 2002-05. By the end, he'd become Brady's go-to receiver. In his two Super Bowls -- wins over Carolina and Philadelphia -- Branch caught 21 passes for 276 yards. Four of his eight Patriot playoff games were 100-yard receiving affairs.
In 2006, Branch held out from training camp with the Patriots. He forced a trade to Seattle, which gave up a first-round 2007 draft pick to New England to get him.
In Seattle, Branch was given a six-year, $39 million contract. In New England, the last offer to Branch was approximately six years, $36 million.
Last week, Branch was traded back to New England. To make the trade happen, Branch lowered his 2011 compensation by $3.65 million. That makes his original contract from 2006 now worth six years and $35.35 million. Now, there's no guarantee the Patriots wouldn't have tried to cut Branch's salary. But I ask you this: Where would Branch have had his best chance to be productive: with the team that drafted him, quarterbacked by an all-timer who had great chemistry with him, consistently in one of the best offenses in football ... or with a team with an oft-injured quarterback, adjusting to a new offensive system, and with three head coaches in five years?
In hindsight, it was an idiotic move, holding out and forcing the Patriots to trade him. The Seahawks traded for an impact receiver, and what they got was a pedestrian one. In 54 career games in Seattle, including the playoffs, Branch had three 100-yard games. In his last 34 games in Seattle, 24 times he was held to 50 receiving yards or fewer. Branch's impact with the Seahawks, basically, was nil.
Check out his last six playoff games in New England. That's how you can tell how much the Pats and Brady were beginning to lean on him, and what a great career he could have had if not for the forced deal to Seattle:
In his last six New England playoff games, including one when he was named the MVP of the Super Bowl, Branch had more 100-yard receiving games than he had in his 54-game career in Seattle. Now Branch is 31, trying to acclimate himself to his old team in his ninth year. He's in his twilight. The big move in 2006, in essence, was for no more money. It's sad, really. But Branch wasn't sad Sunday. He was feeling the love from a crowd that treated him like he never left. The quarterback treated him that way too.
"I'm not surprised he looked for me so much,'' Branch said of Brady. "I wish every receiver had the opportunity to play with this guy. You truly see a champion when you watch Tom play, and it rubs off on everybody.''
Wrapping up the rest of the stories:
The Patriots don't like the Ravens. Or is it the other way around?
Tom Brady and Terrell Suggs got in each other's grills Sunday after Brady appeared to appeal to the umpire for a roughing-the-passer flag, which never came. And apparently the Ravens get under Brady's skin. On Boston's WEEI this morning, in his regular weekly spot, Brady said: "They talk a lot for only beating us once in nine years.'' That could be a very, very interesting playoff rematch.
The Rams are almost relevant.
The Chargers flew to the Midwest to right their season, and late in the first half found themselves in a 17-0 hole. St. Louis had seven sacks and held San Diego to 287 yards, and now we see the Steve Spagnuolo plan. Build a competent offense with a franchise quarterback. Backstop that with a defense with teeth.
"Everyone win their rush,'' Rams defensive end Chris Long said. "That was the plan. We have faith if one guy doesn't get there, we've got someone else on the line who will.'' What was interesting about Long, in a not-so-raucous Rams locker room, is that no one seemed particularly effervescent about winning a game that got St. Louis to 3-3. "It's early,'' he said. "Our eyes are on the prize 10 games from now. Believe me, we're not throwing a party for being 3-3. Our focus is more immediate. We need to win a road game.''
St. Louis at Tampa Bay next week. Looks winnable to me.
In one week, Minnesota got some life.
The Vikings rose to 2-3 with their 24-21 win over the Cowboys. They have to do some winning, obviously, and it'd help if Brett Favre stays out of Goodell Jail. But the Bears are a very shaky 4-2, Green Bay's a beat-up 3-3 with an offense nowhere near what we thought it'd be, and the NFC North could well be a three- and not a two-team race.
Minnesota travels to Green Bay and New England in the next two weeks, and the emotion the Vikings will expend -- first with the Favre investigation, then the rivalry game for Favre, then Randy Moss surely wanting to catch 37 footballs at the Patriots -- can't get in the way of two games that can define their season.
When I talked to coach Brad Childress on Saturday, I asked him about the status of wideout Sidney Rice, out since the summer with hip surgery. "Might be about three weeks,'' he said. If the Vikings can tread water for the next three weeks, they'd enter the final eight games with Favre (one would assume) throwing to Moss, Rice and Percy Harvin. Their final eight isn't a killer slate. If the Vikings are, say, 4-4 when Rice returns, they'll have a good chance to win the division.
Tebow scores. Quietly.
I talked with Tebow last week to ask how he was coping with not playing; since the first game of the season (two carries, two yards, no passes), the former Florida do-everything quarterback hadn't played. It was easy to see why: Kyle Orton was playing like a top-10 quarterback, and as long as he was, Josh McDaniels wasn't going to screw with the chemistry of an offense playing well, until he saw a matchup that he liked.
"It's been a challenge,'' Tebow said, choosing his words carefully and politely. "But I'm OK with it. Kyle's been playing so well. All I can do is prepare every week for whatever my role is, continue to learn this offense, and wait for the time when the coaches think I can help the team.''
That time came against the Jets in Denver's 24-20 loss, when Tebow got under center and ran a version of the option in the first half, sometimes running, sometimes pitching. His five-yard sprint around right end with 11 minutes left in the first half tied the game at 7. Tebow still hasn't thrown a pass, and eventually, McDaniels has to let him do so, if only to show defenses he might throw so they can't load up against the run.
Some sanity to pass interference, please.
The Jets won fair and square in Denver. Safety Renaldo Hill interfered with Santonio Holmes, slightly grabbing his facemask accidentally and affecting Holmes' ability to follow the flight of a pass late in the fourth quarter. Denver led 20-17 at the time, trying to defend a fourth-and-six desperation throw from Mark Sanchez to Holmes at the goal line. What did Sanchez and the Jets have to lose? There aren't any gimme fourth-and-six conversion plays in the playbook, and the Jets clearly figured if they flooded the secondary and tried to get it to the athletic Holmes, maybe he'd have single-coverage and could win a battle for the ball ... or he'd get interfered with, and New York would get a gift. Either way was fine. And when Hill contacted Holmes and tugged at the facemask, that was interference. A 46-yard interference call. The Jets advanced from the 48 to the two on a wing and a prayer.
Stupid. Yes, it was interference. No, it was not worthy of a 46-yard gift. For years, this had been the dumbest rule in the NFL book. Sunday was exhibit A for making interference at most a 15-yard penalty from the line of scrimmage -- not placed at the spot of the foul.