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Brady goes out on limb for Branch

It never feels right to be wrong about somebody, but sometimes it feels good. Yesterday was one of those days.

Barely 48 hours after suggesting on local television that if I were Deion Branch, I wouldn't be waiting for Tom Brady to throw me a life preserver since he had not taken a known antimanagement stance since his friend Lawyer Milloy was sent packing four years ago, Brady showed the leader he is when the chips are down. He made it clear to Sports Illustrated's Michael Silver that he is far from pleased about the conditions that have led to the holdout of his team's No. 1 receiver, and he laid the blame not at the feet of his teammate.

``The bottom line is that Deion is one of the best in the world at what he does," Brady told SI.com. ``It's so hard for him and for us because this is really a ruthless sport."

The last time Brady used such harsh language was to describe the departure of Milloy, his friend and running mate through both the NFL and the streets of Boston. Brady has been mum since then on internal matters, occasionally acknowledging someone as a good player but never going as far out on a limb as he did for Branch yesterday.

Brady said he talked with former Chiefs cornerback Eric Warfield, who played against Branch last season before being released and ending up as a Patriot this summer. Brady asked Warfield how Branch stacked up among the league's best wideouts. What he heard back, and made public yesterday, seemed to bolster Branch's case that the club's three-year, $19 million offer undervalued him enough to compel him to accept a $14,000-a-day fine for withholding his services despite having a year remaining on a five-year-old rookie contract that was due to pay him $1,045,000. Even that figure is skewed, however, because nearly half of it ($500,000) was a result of Branch hitting certain incentives last season, when he had a career-best 998 receiving yards to lead the team.

Brady said Warfield told him, ``Deion was the best I faced. He was spectacular."

Brady did not express anywhere near that kind of emotion when he was asked about the absence of Branch by the local media the day training camp opened. That surely will cause some in the Boston media to grouse about the quarterback's choice of venues in which to express his feelings, but that is of no importance.

What is important is that Brady, so clearly the leader of the Patriots, came out fully in support of a teammate who claims he is being unfairly treated by management, which has long been praised by its customers for both its hard-and-fast fiscal policies and its hard-nosed on-the-field ones.

As Silver put it, the quarterback was ``mad as hell" about Branch's absence and ``not directing his anger at his No. 1 receiver." Who else is there to be angry at, outside of the sometimes penurious men holding the purse strings? The grounds crew?

One reason is that Brady is aware the club was trying to split the $8 million signing bonus offered Branch over two years, thereby reducing its current value, especially when compared with the $8 million David Givens received from Tennessee in March. Another is that he is aware more than $9 million of the money offered Branch is backloaded into the contract's final two years. If the receiver is as good as Brady insisted and Warfield confirmed, that puts his self-worth in a different light from management's harder-line, take-it-or-leave-it stance, which included removing the offer from the table when camp opened.

The public, predictably, has sided with management, believing it has made a fair offer even though that offer is less in total value to the ones received by the Colts' Reggie Wayne, the Redskins' Antwaan Randle El, and Givens. The team's advocates point out that Branch is not a free agent, as those other players were, but Branch's agent, Jason Chayut, has countered that his client was willing to be in camp on time without a new deal if the team simply agreed in writing not to franchise him next year, thus allowing him to become a free agent after five seasons in New England.

Regardless of all that, the most significant thing yesterday was that Brady spoke out forcefully for Branch, pointing out both the ``ruthlessness" of the business side of the sport and the fact that management's financial decisions are consistently ``very black and white." Although Brady didn't say it, he knows, as do Scott Pioli and Bill Belichick, that the world is more nuanced than that. It is a world of mostly grays, but one thing that is not a gray area to Brady is where his top receiver stands.

``Deion is the most important player on our offense," Brady told SI.com. ``When I look at the elite receivers he is second to nobody."

Except when he gets to the pay window, where he's second to nearly everybody ranked anywhere near his level. For Brady to speak out about his missing teammate's value is not easy in an environment like the one that has grown in Foxborough since the Patriots won three Super Bowls.

Even though Brady is one of the league's transcendent stars, speaking out is discouraged in the extreme in Foxborough. For several years, Brady kept a silent vigil in such matters, but yesterday his silence ended. It was an example of perfect timing from someone who has become famous for nothing less.

Regardless of where things go from here, his teammates won't forget that. Yesterday, Tom Brady was a stand-up guy in a stand-down situation. Suggesting he wouldn't be was wrong, and it feels right, and good, to say so.

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