- Michael Smith, NFL Senior Writer
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Through injuries and defections the show always seems to go on in New England.
And if their performance in Saturday night's preseason victory over Arizona was, in fact, a preview of the 2006 season, then Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense still will be worth the price of admission even without co-star Deion Branch, who has yet to report as he holds out for a new contract.
Asked after the game how he thought the situation would play out, leading man Brady said: "I don't know. I didn't think it would go on this long."
Brady had just completed 15 of 20 pass attempts for 149 yards in leading the Patriots to 13 points in two quarters of work. Whoever is out there with him, Brady finds a way to make it work.
Brady recently stood up for his friend and favorite target, telling SI.com that Branch was the most important player on New England's offense. We'll assume Brady was not including himself in that statement. As long as he's at quarterback, the Patriots could run you and me out there and score points.
Pass-catchers are to New England what running backs are to Denver.
Last year New England tied a league record with 12 players catching touchdowns. Four years ago, 11 Patriots had touchdown catches.
When the Patriots' defense struggled last season because of injuries, it proved that not even Bill Belichick could coach just anybody and win a Super Bowl. Great coaches are nothing without good players. But when you've got the best in the league at the game's most important position, it makes up for a lot of deficiencies on offense. New England doesn't have an offensive line of blue-chippers, but it doesn't matter because Brady gets rid of the ball so quickly. Talk to the Patriots' competitors about whether the dynasty is crumbling and they all say some variation of the same thing: As long as they've got Brady they aren't going away.
He makes all the difference. So honestly, it doesn't make a difference whether Branch shows up today or after 10 games. The Patriots' offense will be pretty good.
Think about the cast of characters New England has had at receiver since Brady became the starter in 2001. Branch, Troy Brown, and the departed Davids (Givens and Patten) all were key players during the Patriots' recent run, but New England also has won games, big games, with -- no disrespect -- scrubs: Fred Coleman. Donald Hayes. J.J. Stokes. Dedric Ward. Kevin Kasper. Tim Dwight. Andre Davis. Rod Rutledge. Jermaine Wiggins (he's gotten a lot better since 2001). Christian Fauria.
New England won't hesitate to spend an early-round draft choice on a wide receiver (six receivers or tight ends were selected on the first day since 2002), but never big money. Why? Because they've got a big-time quarterback who makes everyone around him better -- both linemen and receivers -- and a scheme designed to spread the wealth.
Brown made the Pro Bowl after the '01 season. That's it for New England receivers the past five seasons. That's not to say Branch, for one, doesn't have the ability to be a Pro Bowler. It's just that neither he nor anyone else will ever put up Pro Bowl numbers (and thus be paid accordingly) in this offense.
Take Saturday night: Tight end Ben Watson catches four balls. Running back Kevin Faulk catches three. Bam Childress, who spent most of last season on the practice squad, catches a pair. Former Charger Reche Caldwell has two receptions. Daniel Graham, another tight end, gets a catch. Brady connected with eight receivers altogether.
Branch might be Brady's favorite receiver, but he likes anyone who's open.
"We don't have certain receivers ... that need the ball 1,000 times per game," Brady said. "Our guys, they know if they're open they're going to get it."
Branch's absence opens the door for a player like Watson to have a huge season. Watson didn't sign until mid-August two years ago, suffered a season-ending knee injury in his first game, and spent most of last offseason rehabbing. He showed why the Patriots used a first-round pick on him in the playoffs -- a 63-yard touchdown catch-and-run against Jacksonville and the mother of all hustle plays, chasing Champ Bailey the length of the field, from across the field, and leveling the Denver cornerback to prevent a touchdown after Bailey's interception. Watson had a full offseason to develop timing with Brady. He averaged 15.2 yards per catch last season and looks ready to do more of the same. Watch for him. "He's just starting to come into his own," Brady said.
What the Patriots lack at receiver they certainly make up for at tight end. Graham is known more for his blocking but he's involved in the passing game. New England drafted another tight end, Texas' David Thomas, and an H-back, Tulsa's Garrett Mills, this season.
The team's second-rounder, Florida receiver Chad Jackson, has missed most of camp with a hamstring injury. Maybe the Patriots will get something out of him this season. Caldwell didn't do much with the Chargers but he's never played with a QB like Brady. Brown, 35, still can get open and catch it.
Faulk gets a lot of balls. The Patriots had first-round pick Laurence Maroney split wide in their spread formation Saturday.
Point is, if someone is open, Brady will find him. Whoever he is.
Another thing that'll help the passing game is an improved running game. Injuries limited Corey Dillon to 12 games last season. He's healthy again, even if he is 31. Maroney has looked like the real deal in camp and in two preseason games. Faulk is especially dangerous on draws. If the Patriots can run the rock and get back to the balanced offense they had two years ago, that'll force teams to commit more players to run support and open things up downfield for Brady.
As for Branch, to update: The Patriots reportedly have offered their leading receiver (in two of the past three seasons) a three-year extension, through 2009, worth $19 million that includes $8 million in bonuses. Branch's agent, Jason Chayut, hasn't so much as countered that offer. Word is Branch wants a deal that averages $8 million to $9 million per season and includes $12 million in bonuses. There's also been talk that he wants a contract similar to the six-year, $39 million deal (including a $13.5 million bonus) the Colts' Reggie Wayne received this year just before he was to become a free agent.
There was talk last week that the Patriots might have increased their offer to four years, $24 million, with $10 million in bonuses, but both Chayut and a high-ranking team official said that was not the case. Fact is the sides aren't even negotiating; Chayut says he and the Patriots haven't talked since before camp.
Chayut has said that Branch would report if the team would promise not to use the franchise designation after the season. Short of such an agreement, the signs point to Branch, who can be fined up to $14,000 a day, sitting out well into the season.
Of course, Branch has outperformed his contract. He deserves to be fairly compensated for catching 21 passes in two Super Bowls (he was the MVP of XXXIX) and averaging 20 yards on 41 career postseason receptions. His value to the team is far greater than the $1.045 million he is to make this season, the last of his rookie contract.
But the Patriots aren't about to give in to Branch's demands. Before they do, they'll bring Jerry Rice out of retirement as they did with Junior Seau. They won't panic because their QB is money, especially with a running game he can count on.
Sure, New England's offense will miss a beat. Branch is by far the Patriots' best receiver. But Brady and his band will play on. And play well.
Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Contact him here.