He’s a big-game player, that’s for sure – his three finest performances have been in one AFC Championship and two Super Bowls. His Super Bowl XXXIX Most Valuable Player award speaks to that ability. And if Branch felt under the microscope in any way with so many dollars riding on his future productivity, he didn’t show it. Branch began with an extended hand to his past. “I’d like to thank you all for giving me the opportunity to be here and be a part of this team,” the receiver said. “I’d also like to thank Mr. (Jonathan) Kraft, Coach (Bill) Belichick and Scott Pioli and the organization of the New England Patriots for drafting me and giving me the opportunity to be the player that I have (tried) to be. Hopefully, I can continue to be that player here with the Seattle Seahawks and deliver as I did with the New England Patriots, and I will be ready and prepared to do that when my time comes.
”I would also like to thank the fans back in New England and also thank my teammates who have been a great big support of this whole process that I have been a part of. I’m going to miss those guys, but I think right now this is the most important thing now. I am a Seattle Seahawk and I’m proud. I’m ready to get going.”
Of course, the circumstances that precipitated this trade were hardly so friendly – unhappy with the $1.045 million he would have made in the final year of his rookie contract in New England, the 2002 second-round draft pick from Louisville held out all the way through the preseason and New England’s season opener against the Buffalo Bills, racking up over $600,000 in fines. The Seahawks and New York Jets had been bidding for Branch’s services when Belichick and company let it be known that they were ready to transact. In the end, the Jets fell away and Seattle continued what has been the most aggressive free-agent shopping spree in the franchise’s history.
Branch had been looking for a deal similar to the six-year, $40 million deal signed by Indianapolis Colts WR Reggie Wayne, and Wayne's deal included $13 million in bonus money. New England countered with two offers - one for five years and $31 million with $11 million guaranteed, and a four-year deal for $19 million with $8 million guaranteed. Branch turned down both deals and continued his holdout.
The process has been a test of Branch’s will and principle. “You never know how long these holdouts can go,” he said. Branch upped the ante when he made it known that he would sit out the first ten games of the season, playing only in the final six, which would allow the final year of his rookie contract to vest and make him an unrestricted free agent. New England decided that the devil they didn’t know – life without their best receiver – was preferable to the devil they did. “For one minute I didn’t think I could sit out five days. Then five became ten and then ten turned to twenty, and then I missed the whole training camp," Branch remembered. "Being the person that I am, that’s something that I never want to go through. I never would hope for someone else to go through that situation. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I had to know my purpose and my reason for what I was doing. The organization knew that and I knew that myself. Seattle and the Patriots came together and got it done.”
Did it seem like a never-ending situation? Did his faith in the holdout ever waver? “When you go through certain processes such as mine, it was a long one,” he said. “I think the organization did what was best for them. I had to do what was best for me and my family as well. I have no control over trades that is out of my control. Yesterday was (a relief). I met my guys (agents) and they told me it was over and I was shocked. We all knew what teams were involved, but to finalize that it was the Seattle Seahawks. I am coming to another great organization, great coaches, great owner Mr. Paul Allen, Tim Ruskell, Coach Holmgren, these guys got it done. I’m just proud to be here and be part of another great organization.”
Seattle’s interest was the crack in the iceberg that Branch had been waiting for. “I was worried at first. Each and every day that passed by I was worried. I think as the season started I was getting anxious to get out and start playing some football. My agents Jason and Allen and Brian, those guys stood by me and told me everything was going to work out. I’m here now.”
Another aspect of the deal that makes it so advantageous to Branch is the fact that he’s not going from New England to a developing team like the Jets – the Seahawks were a Super Bowl contestant in 2005 and projected to play in rarefied air for quite a few years. Branch might be jumping from mini-dynasty to mini-dynasty if the Seahawks can turn their new organizational templates into a Lombardi Trophy or two in the lobby of Kirkland HQ. “I’m excited to be a part of something that you all have, that Seattle has going right now,” Branch said. “I hope everyone is not looking at me like, ‘hey this guy is the next thing to get us going.’ I’m just here to contribute a major role and also help this team get over that hump that they have been striving to get over. I’m just a piece of the puzzle.”
Branch is already getting acquainted with the other “pieces” – his new teammates have gone out of their way to make him feel welcome. “That started as soon as I walked in the building. I have met so many people; remembering faces with the names. I talked to Matt (Hasselbeck) earlier and he’s already giving me plays, but at the same time he said, ‘we have a lot of time to learn this stuff.’”
And that’s first of two questions on everyone’s mind – when will Branch step onto the field for the Seahawks? Seattle takes on the Cardinals this Sunday and the New York Giants a week later. The team has two weeks to cut another player to bring their roster back down to the league-mandated 53 players, but Branch can’t take the field during the scope of that exemption. If he does, the Seahawks will have already had to make that cut. In Branch’s mind, he’s ready to go.
“Basically I feel real good,” he said. “It will be the coach’s decision about how far I am into the offense or (how) conditioned (I am). But I am physically fit. I had nothing else to do but work out. If I am not playing I’m either holding out or losing a lot of money. I think that is the coach’s decision. I’m just going to prepare, get in and study the playbook and try to get acclimated with the guys and the surroundings. I’m sure the community will see me a whole lot as well.”
Question #2…where will Branch line up? The Seahawks already have three receivers of starting quality – Darrell Jackson, Nate Burleson and Bobby Engram – not to mention young D.J. Hackett, a third-year receiver who is brimming with potential - and if there was one overriding public uncertainty about this deal, it was the notion of the front office spending so much money on a player when the depth chart at his position seems full already. Branch’s belief is that there’s always enough room for the players who can make a difference. Showing the team and coaches you’re ready at all times is the first step. “I think that is your job as a professional,” he said. “Not only for me, but for everybody. Even the guys that are here in this game, you have to prove yourself each and every day. There is somebody always vying to take your job. You’re not always safe; you have to be prepared for anything.”
The Patriots are a team known to switch their roster around when necessary, to play the best players for a given situation, and to know when it’s time to pull the trigger on a new player or discard those who don’t fit any more – Bill Belichick’s decisive trade of disgruntled, troublemaking wideout Terry Glenn in 2001 after suspending him for the season was one of the springboards the Patriots used to etch their names in the history books over the next four seasons. These are the hallmarks of any successful front office. Branch is used to this approach, and though his summer may have made him seem a selfish player, the comments from his former teammates tell a very different story. He’s a team guy, pure and simple, and that won’t change now. “I’m not the one who is going to make the game plan and dictate where I go,” he insisted. “I think Coach Holmgren has been a great coach. He’s been a great coach in this type of West Coast system and he has done a great job of making sure he uses each and every asset that he has on his team. I am here to accept my role and roll with it.”
“My role is for me to be prepared to play football. I can’t say where he will line me up, where would I be during certain plays? I don’t know that. My job is going to come in, learn the game plan, get the system down first and foremost and start getting acclimated with the guys on the team and then go from there.”
Certainly, he’s going from one great signal caller to another. Moving from Tom Brady to Matt Hasselbeck – most likely the best quarterbacks in each conference – would be a dream situation for any receiver. Branch had a lot to say already about the man who will be threading the needle inhis general direction for the next few years. “(Hasselbeck is) a great quarterback. I think he has stepped into the mold as one of the elite quarterbacks in the league. You can’t say enough about him. He is a proven quarterback, he has a core of receivers around him, and he has a great running back in Shaun Alexander. His team has everything. He was one step from winning the Super Bowl. Matt is a great quarterback.”
This is a player who also understands the balance of the Seahawks' West Coast-derived offense, where one player might not get 120 footballs thrown at him in a season – it’s a team scheme, meant to spread the field and leave defenses at their wits’ end. “I think it is about the same,” he said when asked about the ratio of catches per player. “In New England, you don’t see one guy having 80 catches and the next receiver closest to him have 30. It’s pretty balanced. Coach Holmgren makes sure everybody gets a chance to make some plays and gives them the opportunity and it was the same back in New England. I may have had 70 catches and David Givens had 55, two tight ends had at least 30 catches, running backs had 30. I think it is about the same.”
Food for thought if you’re one of the naysayers who balk at the deal for “a guy who’s never had a 1,000-yard season” – Branch’s breakout year was 2005, when he caught 78 passes for 998 yards and five touchdowns. At 27 years of age, in an offense built to make receivers look great, one would expect another upswing in productivity, shared time or not. Branch will need some time to adjust to Holmgren’s offense, a process that’s already beginning. “I’m familiar with it but I think it is going to take some time,” he said when asked about the system he’ll be joining. Coach Holmgren teaches West Coast at a strenuous level, but I’m pretty familiar with it. There is going to be some work, but I am prepared for it.”
What does Branch think he brings to the team? Why should Seahawks fans be excited about this new acquisition? “I want to help add leadership, and just my presence. I’m not here to take away from anyone. I have a role. I will know what that role is once I start practice. I’m going to just try to contribute as much as I can. I’m not here to take balls away. I’ve been hearing people say, ‘he’s going to take balls away from this guy and that guy’, and that’s not what I want to do. I’m not here to do that. I’m just here to play football and win some games and win a Super Bowl.”
This is one player who knows all about what it takes to get to and win the Super Bowl. Seahawks Team President Tim Ruskell said yesterday that Branch’s ability to do the little things in big games was one reason this deal was made. Ruskell is a connoisseur of intangibles, and Branch appears to have enough to spare. “I think what was a big thing in New England is that we studied a whole lot,” Branch said when asked what separates champions from the rank and file. “You all only see Sunday. During the week, there is so much work that goes into a game. Once the season is over, it goes into the playoffs and then the Super Bowl. It takes a lot of work.”
Now, for Deion Branch, it’s time to hone in, get on the field, start taking reps, and look to the time he can start to make a difference for the Seahawks. “I still have a lot of work to do,” he said. “Just because you are settled, doesn’t mean that you can kick back now.
“Now is the time to go out and excel and show the organization and the community, ‘Okay - this guy deserves every bit of what he is worth.’”
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET and a staff writer for Football Outsiders. Feel free to e-mail him here.