New England should have kept Branch

Instead of trading for Randy Moss, the Patriots should have held on to their best receiver, Deion Branch, Jeffri Chadiha writes.

Updated: May 10, 2007, 12:52 AM ET
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

There are suddenly so many questions about the New England Patriots' offense that it's hard to keep track of them all. Some people wonder whether the addition of Randy Moss will curse the Pats or create enough big plays to help them win another Super Bowl. Others ponder how all these new receivers -- including offseason acquisitions Donte' Stallworth, Wes Welker and Kelley Washington -- will make life easier for quarterback Tom Brady. They even wonder why a team that has traditionally been fiscally conservative in the free-agent market is now throwing money around as if Paris Hilton were managing the books.

Wide Receiver
Seattle Seahawks

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2006 SEASON STATISTICS
Rec Yds TD Avg Long YAC
53 725 4 13.7 38 187

But with all those questions, there's one that still makes more sense than any other: Why didn't the Patriots just pay former wide receiver Deion Branch in the first place? It would've saved them a lot more cash this offseason. It would've given them a better chance at beating Indianapolis in last season's AFC Championship Game. It also would have appeased Brady, who is extremely tight with Branch, along with a locker room full of teammates who had appreciated what that diminutive receiver had done to help New England win two Super Bowls during his tenure.

Instead, we now see the Patriots scrambling to fill a cavernous void with moves that still have the potential to harm them in the long run. By adding Moss to the roster in a draft-day trade with Oakland, New England essentially acknowledged that it would make a Faustian pact to improve its mediocre receiving corps. In doing so, the Patriots basically have admitted that the one constant in all their Super Bowl runs -- that unfailing team chemistry -- isn't as vital now as having a big name with a bad reputation running routes in their system. The prediction here is that it takes Moss less than eight games to rile Brady, head coach Bill Belichick and just about any Patriots loyalist who blindly has bought into this gamble.

The irony here isn't just that keeping Branch would have emboldened that chemistry or given the Patriots a receiver who has produced more receptions and yards than Moss has generated over the past two seasons. It's that when you combine New England's decision to trade him to Seattle with the team's current offseason spending spree, you can imagine New England eventually suffering through the kind of disharmony that eventually undermines a team's goals.

You can't tell me that the younger Patriots players aren't wondering how they'll be treated once they reach a point when they can demand more money. Tennessee wide receiver David Givens, whom New England didn't re-sign after the 2005 season, supported that point last season, when he admitted that he heard a lot of grumbling among the Patriots after the Branch trade went down and New England's offense stumbled at the start of last year.

In fact, I can promise you that cornerback Asante Samuel was one such player who paid attention to how Branch's contract was handled. He is currently saddled with the franchise tag and has no chance to pursue the big money that other teams are throwing at veteran cornerbacks. He probably would have been happy if the Patriots had made a serious attempt to sign him to a long-term deal before last season ended, but he also knew how the team did business. He realized that New England can take care of certain players whenever it likes -- especially when it involves dealing with cornerstones such as Brady or Pro Bowl defensive tackle Richard Seymour. But the team also can be downright cold-blooded when it comes to handling other young talents.

I really wouldn't have a problem with this if we were talking about another NFL team. But the Patriots have ridden that team-first company line for so long that it's impossible to not criticize them for how they've handled their business over the last nine months. And please don't talk to me about how the Patriots have been able to continue winning despite losing key veterans over the years. I know their accomplishments, and I applaud them for their ability to thrive despite the departures of stars such as Lawyer Milloy, Ty Law, Willie McGinest and Adam Vinatieri. However, my point here is that there's an undeniable value in taking care of your own talent.

Wide Receiver
New England Patriots

Profile
2006 SEASON STATISTICS
Rec Yds TD Avg Long YAC
42 553 3 13.2 51 127

It's one thing to lose an aging veteran edging toward the point in his career when the money he'll make won't equate to on-field performance. It's another thing altogether when a team has a young talent like Branch, a player who had been drafted and cultivated by that team, and then decides he isn't worth the money he was seeking. In fairness, I'm willing to say the Patriots have found so much success plugging other players into depleted positions that they underestimated Branch's potential value. But they now must realize that their mishandling of that situation only creates more questions about what they'll do in the future.

To be blunt, you don't generate the kind of loyalty the Patriots have thrived on over the past six years with that approach. Players aren't stupid. They know it's easy for a franchise to invest in a Brady or Seymour, but they also accept that only a handful of younger players will fall into that no-brainer category. And if those young players begin to sense that a team won't reward them for a job well done, there's a good chance that unhappiness can create the kind of fissures within a team's confidence that even the best of franchises can't overcome.

So I guess we'll see how all these offseason moves play out for New England over the next year or so. We'll find out if Moss can be productive in a better environment and if those other receivers, including 2006 second-round pick Chad Jackson, can become reliable targets for Brady. But I'll still be watching and wondering why the Patriots didn't make things easier on themselves last fall. Because even now, it's still blatantly clear that the best receiver for their offense, for a number of reasons, is now catching passes in Seattle.

Jeffri Chadiha is a senior writer for ESPN.com.