FOXBOROUGH -- Less than 72 hours after Deion Branch told a local television station he felt something would be worked out to break the impasse with his employer, something was. The Patriots gave him permission to try to leave town.
That may not have been what the holdout wide receiver had in mind, but early yesterday afternoon that's what happened when the Patriots suddenly issued a two-sentence statement: ``The New England Patriots have given Deion Branch permission to seek a trade and negotiate a contract with other clubs. This permission will extend until Sept. 1, 2006."
It is unknown why an organization so secretive that it won't make public what wrist Tedy Bruschi injured would suddenly make such a public declaration of its business dealings since the Patriots could just as easily have informed Branch's agent quietly and left the rest of the world to wonder, as they usually do. But the public nature of that announcement speaks to one of the stumbling blocks between the sides. At this juncture, this non-negotiation has become far too little about business and far too much about ego .
Who made the first offer? Who made the second? Who should have countered what and when? Who cares?
The Patriots remain mystified by and miffed at Branch and his agent, Jason Chayut, for not countering what they felt was a solid original offer in May of a three-year extension they say was worth $19.25 million, with an $8 million bonus spread evenly over two years ($4 million now and another $4 million if he was on the roster in 2007).
Branch remains troubled by how his original contract was handled, feeling he was taken advantage of by the team when it knew it had him over the rookie barrel. He is also bothered by the team's insistence that he's not worth what the Colts' Reggie Wayne was paid this offseason (six-year deal worth close to $40 million) to avoid going into free agency, while at the same time refusing to guarantee they will not apply the franchise player tag to Branch, preventing him from becoming a free agent.
That is the same guarantee the Seattle Seahawks gave running back Shaun Alexander a year ago before signing him to a new multiyear deal before he hit free agency, and it worked out fine. But the Patriots fear if they were to agree to such a demand from Branch, it would come back to haunt them in future negotiations.
So now Branch is free to seek a trade and a new contract -- with the Patriots believing he won't be able to find a team willing to give him more than they offered because it would also have to compensate the Patriots. Even if Branch comes up with a deal he's willing to take, the Patriots don't have to agree to it if they don't like the compensation or the team it's coming from.
The Patriots' unexpected move forced Branch and Chayut to formulate a plan over the next 24 hours of how to respond.
A friend of Branch's who is close to the situation said last night, ``They'll find a good situation for Deion. If the Patriots are serious, we'll know soon enough."
The difficulty here is twofold. First, they have only six days to make a deal and they're trying to do it when teams are reducing rosters. Second, because Branch has a year remaining on his current deal, he would have to be flexible unless his real aim is simply to get out of New England first and worry about the rest later. If that's the case, and he's willing to play out his current contract elsewhere, the market for Branch could be far wider than the Patriots expect, as it turned out to be for wide receiver David Givens during the offseason.
Either way, it will be a tense six days for both sides if Branch decides to shop himself around. If he strikes a deal somewhere, it will be the Patriots who have to make a choice between allowing a player under contract to shoot his way out of town or retaining him against his will and thus engendering even deeper animosity than already may exist.
As options go, it's not the wishbone for either side.