Deion Branch, Patriots: Like old times
Receiver, offense glad to be back where they began, hope to rekindle spark
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Having a play in football end where it starts is usually not the desired result. At one point, the same could have been said for Deion Branch's football career and the New England Patriots' offensive approach.
That is no longer the case.
Both Branch and the Patriots' attack are happy to be back where they began, which was the overriding theme Tuesday as Branch practiced with the Patriots for the first time since he was acquired from the Seattle Seahawks for a 2011 fourth-round draft choice.
The symmetry of what unfolded isn't on any page of the standard NFL playbook.
The 31-year-old Branch, who entered the NFL as a second-round draft choice of the Patriots in 2002, said that he was willing to rework his contract to make Monday's trade possible. Back in the summer of 2006, a contract dispute ultimately led to Branch's departure from New England, the Patriots shipping him to Seattle for a first-round draft choice as Branch landed the lucrative, long-term contract that he desired.
So the sight of Branch and Brady taking the long walk from the locker room to the upper practice fields Tuesday was a reflection of the Patriots returning even closer to their offensive roots. When Branch was traded in 2006, the Patriots endured a season with no true outside threat (Reche Caldwell was the leading receiver that year), which ultimately led them to three-plus explosive years of air strikes sparked by Randy Moss & Co.
Had Branch and the Patriots reached a resolution in the summer of 2006, who knows if the Moss era -- which had run its course, ending with last week's trade of Moss to the Minnesota Vikings -- would have ever gotten off the ground in New England?
That type of question percolated as Branch -- still in his game pants and cleats after Tuesday's practice -- arrived for his news conference and described the feeling of being home again.
"I wish it never happened, but no regrets," said Branch, admittedly now wiser to both football X's and O's and football dollars and cents.
"When I left, there wasn't any issue between me and Coach Belichick. None at all. We didn't leave on a bad note and I think that's why it was so easy to return, because we both understood what was going on. The big thing, it wasn't a personal issue. I wasn't mad at Coach. He wasn't mad at me. We just couldn't come to an agreement and that stuff happens."
Things are naturally different in Foxborough since Branch's departure, with the Patriot Place development around Gillette Stadium the most noticeable change that caught his eye. Branch's locker is also in a different spot, this time right next to Brady in the location previously occupied by Moss.
Branch made it a point to say he's not here to replace Moss -- he's just a "piece to the puzzle" -- and he doesn't even want his old jersey No. 83 back. That belongs to Wes Welker, so Branch will wear No. 84.
"Wes came in and did a great job. He deserves it," Branch said before turning humorous. "I'm just going to get one number higher than him; since I'm taller than him that will work."
While those things represent a fresh start, one he thought might come last year when Seattle's front office was undergoing changes, Branch was comforted when he walked into the Patriots' locker room and quickly spotted familiar faces.
Nine players on the current 53-man roster played with Branch in his first go-round in New England, so there was some nostalgia felt among teammates when Branch walked through the door for the first time after a whirlwind 72 hours.
As for the football, because the Patriots' offense has evolved since Branch left, his return won't be seamless. Still, the expectation is for a smoother transition than if a player with no background in the system had joined the mix. Branch recalled some of the plays Tuesday, but joked that the team was making it harder for him by not running them in practice.
Surely, a few of the oldies but goodies will be dusted off in the coming days. Brady was already peppering Branch with plays on their way to practice, then drilled him hard once arriving on the field.
It was a unique day in that regard -- Branch's return to town and the Patriots moving one step closer to an offensive approach that had an early-to-mid 2000s feel to it.
"When you have a quarterback like Tom, you can do a lot of things," Branch said. "You just have to make sure you put the right guys in the right place. You just follow his lead and he won't lead you in the wrong direction."
The direction that Branch and the Patriots are heading is full steam ahead, with Branch saying things were moving quickly on Tuesday, and that he hopes to be on the field for Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens.
Both having come full circle, there was excitement about the promise of what lies ahead.
Mike Reiss covers the Patriots for ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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