But Wednesday, during the team’s first day of minicamp, wide receiver Deion Branch was back where he belongs. On the practice field. Running routes. Catching passes.
True, it was only a handful of snaps in individual drills. But it was a needed next step in Branch’s recovery from having arthroscopic surgery in March to repair cartilage damage in his left knee – the one that needed major surgery after Branch tore the anterior cruciate ligament in the playoff loss to the Green Bay Packers following the 2007 season.
“It was just good to be back out there with the guys,” Branch said.
While is teammates have been going through minicamp and OTA practices to ingest the offensive and defensive changes being implemented by first-year head coach Jim Mora and new coordinators Greg Knapp and Gus Bradley, Branch has been working his way back from his latest procedure.
The road to his recovery always seemed to lead to the berm, and Krein.
“I’m going to leave that thing alone,” Branch said through a smile so bright it matched the picture-postcard weather.
During his berm sessions, Branch ran up it – forward and backward. He hopped up it – on one leg and two. He ran straight up it, as well as zigzagging his way to the top.
“I’ve done pretty much everything you can do on it,” he said. “I’ve maxed it out.”
Branch wasn’t the only player to practice for the first time this spring. Also back:
Cory Redding, a defensive lineman who was obtained in a March trade with the Detroit Lions and is coming off knee surgery that ended his 2008 season. The Seahawks have big plans for Redding, who will play end in the base defense and also slide to tackle in pass-rush situations.
Kelly Jennings. The former first-round draft choice has been sidelined after having shoulder surgery. A one-time starter at right cornerback, Jennings was replaced last season by Josh Wilson, who has been supplanted this offseason by the re-signing of Ken Lucas.
Olindo Mare. The veteran kicker had been working out on his own, but rejoined the team for this mandatory three-day minicamp. As was the case last year, Mare and second-year kicker Brandon Coutu will vie for the job during training camp and the preseason.
“Back in a limited role, but back,” Mora said when asked about the anticipated returns of Branch and Redding. “And it was good to see.”
Like Branch, Redding and Jennings were limited to individual drills, because the Seahawks have taken a conservative approach with their players who are coming off surgery – a group that also includes offensive linemen Walter Jones and Mike Wahle, defensive linemen Patrick Kerney and Brandon Miller and linebacker D.D. Lewis.
All are expected back, on at least a limited basis, when training camp opens next month.
“We’ve been a little bit conservative with some of the guys,” Mora said. “But we did that by plan. The last thing I want to do in this last three-day minicamp is push a Cory Redding, or a Deion Branch, or a Kelly Jennings too far and have a setback.”
Branch’s return did not go unnoticed by his teammates. They began “welcoming” him back as soon as it became apparent that he would indeed practice. The barbed-tired welcome wagon shifted into high gear when Branch showed up on the practice field with his helmet.
“Everyone gave him a really hard time today,” quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. “Coach Knapp gave him a hard time. The receivers were all over him. But that’s just part of being on a team.
“But he made an appearance today. That was good. It’s good to have him back.”
Offered Branch, “I think I’m like the jumper cable for the team. All the guys were excited and screaming in the locker when they saw me try on my helmet.”
Branch is scheduled to do even more Thursday, when the players will practice twice.
But Wednesday, just running a few routes against air and catching a couple of passes definitely was an improvement for Branch, who had muttered repeatedly this spring that he would rather be practicing than going through his rehab paces.
“I already know the question,” Branch said before the obvious question could be completed. “I just got a little break today from what we’ve been doing.”
As soon as Branch had called it a practice, he was running on a side field – with Krein looking on.
“He still kind of topped it off after I left practice,” Branch said.
There have been flashes of why the Seahawks gave up a first-round draft choice to obtain him and then gave Branch a lucrative contract to appease him. Like the seven-catch, 113-yard performance against the San Francisco 49ers in 2006. Or the seven-catch outings against the Arizona Cardinals (122 yards) and 49ers (130 yards) in ’07. Or the two-touchdown effort against the Patriots and Cardinals last season.
The problem last season was not the knee, Branch said, but “other minor stuff that was ailing.” It was Branch who opted for the latest procedure on his knee because he wants to fulfill his potential this season – for an entire season.
“You’ll never be ‘back to normal’ once you have that type of surgery done,” Branch said. “I feel stronger, but it’s not normal.”
That’s why Wednesday was a giant step for Branch, as well as Redding.
“We expect big things from both of those guys,” Mora said. “They’ve wanted to be out it. They’ve worked as hard as anybody in the organization. They just haven’t done it on the field.
“So for them to get back on the field was really nice.”
He’ll get no argument from the berm-running Branch.