Deion Branch botched his first impression in Seattle. And his second. And his third. And his fourth. And somehow, against all opposition, the cameras are still rolling for Take No. 5.
It’s hard to determine whether he’s lucky, persistent or self-abusive.
“I feel good,” Branch said last week, dismissing his snake-bitten four seasons with the Seahawks. “I feel real good. Real, real good. Feel good.”
He sounded like he was auditioning to be the next James Brown. All he lacked was a few dance moves and a perm.
In truth, he looks as good as he feels. The injury-prone wide receiver has enjoyed as fine a preseason as any of the Seahawks. New coach Pete Carroll praises him. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck finally seems comfortable with him. Expectations are starting to form. All the while, you crank up the cynicism, roll your eyes and shout, “Not again!”
The Seahawks traded a No. 1 pick to New England in 2006 for the right to overpay Branch, and since then, he has collected more missed games because of injury (15) than touchdown receptions (14). The rundown of hard luck for the two-time champion and former Super Bowl MVP: Lisfranc foot sprain, anterior cruciate ligament tear in his knee, medial and lateral meniscus damage in the knee, posterior knee sprain, heel problem.
Then, last season, he was labeled a malcontent. It’s a misperception — Branch is one of the most affable Seahawks — but he brought it on himself. And people had been looking for an excuse to get after him for his spotty production.
Branch provided fuel for criticism with his bizarre “You know where to find me!” end-zone celebration, which many wrongly thought was an invite for teams to trade for him. And in late December, he and T.J. Houshmandzadeh turned Nate Burleson’s weekly radio show on 950 KJR-AM into a session to vent about their haters. It was embarrassing. And for Branch, it was particularly damaging.
“And for all the other people who’s doubting the Seahawks, I’m going to tell you this right here: It’s either you with us or you against us, bottom line,” he said that day. “There’s no if, ands or buts about it.”
Looking back, Branch wishes he would’ve expressed his frustration differently. He remains adamant that his motivation was to defend teammates, mostly against the harsh analysis of KJR’s Ian Furness and Hugh Millen, but he came across as flippant toward the entire fan base.
Now, as he talks of making amends and moving on, you might as well nickname him Olive Branch.
“If I offended anyone in the past, I’m sorry,” Branch said. “The only thing I will say I regret is letting outsiders inflict damage on what we have going on in-house. Honestly, I didn’t really go as crazy as I could have, or as I should have, but I will never do that again. The biggest thing for me is to be the bigger person and the bigger professional and not allow my emotions to take over.
“Hey, people are going to judge. People are going to do whatever they’re going to do. I was trying to defend my teammates, but like I said, I’m sorry if I offended anyone. That wasn’t what I was trying to do.”
Clearly, Branch is in a better place now. The 31-year-old receiver has said on many occasions that he wants to play in Seattle for the rest of his career. The $39 million contract ($13 million guaranteed) he signed in 2006 doesn’t expire until after next season. But considering that the Seahawks acquired him thinking they’d snagged a potential No. 1 receiver, it’s surprising that Branch has lasted this long and made this much money without being cut.
For the past two offseasons, speculation has had him leaving Seattle. But it says something about both Branch’s character and his past successes in New England that he has survived two coaching changes and one general-manager switch with the Seahawks.
In the NFL, where players are dismissed quickly when they show signs of decline, Branch has had the rare opportunity to work through his misfortune. Will he reward the Seahawks for their patience? If he stays healthy, he could produce something like 55 receptions, 700 yards and six touchdowns. Not great, but still valuable. Then again, he has battled injuries for four years and played all 16 games just once in his first eight NFL seasons.
But the Seahawks think he’s worth one more chance. During the offseason, Branch ignored most of the innuendo that he would be waived or traded. Only one rumor found his ears. He heard the erroneous talk that he might be thrown into a potential trade for then-Denver wide receiver Brandon Marshall. The false report actually led to an important moment.
New general manager John Schneider called Branch to address the speculation, and they forged an honest relationship as a result.
“You’re not going anywhere,” Schneider said, according to Branch. “If something were to come up, I would call and let you know. If you have any issues, make sure you give me a call.”
Since then, Schneider has lived up to his word. Branch understands his new boss even better than he did Tim Ruskell, the man who made the deal to bring him here. He feels the same about Carroll and offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates. Change was supposed to be bad for Branch. Instead, he’s thriving.
“In this profession, there’s a lot of disloyalty,” Branch said. “But these guys are very loyal. And I’m not saying they’re supposed to stick to their word regardless. You never know what’s going to happen, but I feel like if I capitalize on my opportunities, they’ll stand by me. The line of communication is there. It means a lot.”
When new management takes over, you expect casualties. But it’s just as important to rescue lost players. Branch has been thrown a life jacket, and now it’s on him to make the most of it.
It’s his last chance, for real, this time.