Deion Branch walked into the office of his agent, Jason Chayut, yesterday and wasn't sure what was going on.
``His face was red," the soon-to-become ex-Patriot wide receiver said. ``I wasn't sure if it was good news or bad news."
As it turned out, it was both. Branch learned he had been traded to the Seattle Seahawks for a 2007 No. 1 draft choice and soon would sign a six-year, $39 million contract that will pay him about $23 million in the first three years, which are really the only ones that count.
Yet even on the verge of becoming a multimillionaire, Branch admitted to having mixed emotions about leaving after four seasons with the Patriots.
``I felt a lot of happiness and a little sadness," said Branch, whose two grievances against the Patriots will not have to be adjudicated because the team agreed to the Seahawks' terms.
``I feel good about my situation but sad about leaving my teammates. I understand the situation. The organization had to do what it felt was best for the team and I had to do what was best for me and my family.
``I have three kids. I'm the one who has to take care of them. The Patriots aren't going to take care of them. Nobody is going to take care of them but me."
Branch certainly will be far more able to do that now than he was going into this season. He was set to earn $1,045,000 this year, which included a base salary of $500,000 and another $545,000 in earned incentives from his past play. Now it is estimated that he will receive a signing bonus in excess of $12 million and an average of $6.5 million a season over the life of his new contract. New England's first offer was a three-year extension for $18.45 million with an $8 million signing bonus split over two seasons and the Patriots later talked in general terms about a five-year deal.
As important as the money was, however, Branch insisted he would not have been able to buck one of the most powerful organizations in pro football had his problems simply been a matter of salary. They were also about what he perceived as issues of fairness and exploitation. He and Chayut believed his value was far in excess of what the Patriots claimed, and he felt their offers were ones that guaranteed he would continue to be underpaid if he agreed to them simply to secure some short-term security.
As things turned out, Branch was right, 100 percent right, because the difference in guaranteed money being offered was like the difference between a pothole and the Grand Canyon. It was vast in a business as fleeting as pro football. It was a difference Branch, a feisty little man who always played far bigger than he physically appears to be, was willing to fight for.
``We really felt the heat when they changed the rules [on fines for training camp holdouts] from $5,000 a day to $14,000 a day," Branch said. ``That threw a monkey wrench into our plans. But I did what I had to do. It was my choice all along.
``The hardest days for me were leading up to the opening game knowing I wasn't going to go back. I'd never missed a game when I was healthy in football season, but I knew unless I won the grievances I wasn't going to play for 10 games. I was getting mentally prepared for that, but I'm a football player. When the games start, you want to play. But I did a good job staying grounded.
``I'd never wish the situation I went through on no one. If you have as much passion for the game as I do, I wouldn't wish it on nobody. To hold out against an organization like the Patriots, it can't just be about money. Money's always involved because this is a business. They let you know that from the first day you come into the NFL. But to go through this and stay strong, money can't be your main purpose."
Over the past two years, Branch began to feel he had outperformed his original contract, which to this day he believes was supposed to be a four-year deal but was altered after he showed up in good faith to train with the team as a rookie in minicamp before signing a contract he had agreed to in principal. After he performed exceedingly well, it became a five-year deal, non-negotiable. Having no leverage, no money, kids to feed, and other family members to help, he signed it.
He didn't like it then and he liked it less as the years passed and he started 50 of the 61 games he played in and, more important, improved his level of play in the playoffs. In eight playoff games, which included two Super Bowl victories, Branch had 41 catches for 619 yards, an average of 15 yards a catch. One of those games was an 11-catch, 133-yard MVP performance in Super Bowl XXXIX against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Yet when Branch began negotiations for a contract extension this offseason, he was offered three years worth $18.45 million with an $8 million bonus split over two seasons. Having seen his former teammate (and No. 2 receiver) David Givens leave for Tennessee and a five-year, $24 million contract with an $8 million signing bonus (a deal worth $15.3 million over the first three years), Branch did the math and didn't like the results.
So he dug in his heels, as Richard Seymour had done the year before. He did it. Not his agent. Not the NFL Players Association, which was ready to defend him this week in the grievance hearings.
The union, in fact, had begun the discovery process, and in its opinion at least, both coach Bill Belichick and vice president of player personnel Scott Pioli had violated the CBA by urging Branch during negotiations to fire Chayut.
Even if the arbitrator believed that was the case, it did not guarantee the player would win. It could, however, mean the team would be fined and potentially penalized for unfair labor practices, a point made by Branch's attorney, Jeffrey Kessler, yesterday.
In the end, it appeared the Patriots chose to cut their losses, making the best deal they could and one that may help them in the future while letting a player move on who no longer wanted to be here and was not coming back, regardless of how the grievances concluded. What Branch did was what he's done from the start. He did what he believed was right and accepted the consequences.
``People kept saying and writing that my guy [Chayut] was leading me the wrong way," Branch said. ``He never led me anyplace. My guys gave me choices. They said, `If you do this, this will happen, if you do that, that will happen. This is the consequences if you do this, that is the consequences if you do that.'
``I'm the guy who made the choices. Jason never once said, `Deion, you need to do this.' It was always my choice. Jason was by far the best guy out there.
``Some people in the media treated me like I couldn't think for myself. I got three kids. I knew what the consequences were if I stayed out and I knew what they were if I signed that contract.
``I think everything got magnified because it was against this organization. They made it me vs. the Patriots, and some people felt the need to point the finger at somebody, but that was never what it was about.
``They had to do what was best for the organization. I had to do what was best for me and my family. We both had to make choices. I'm sad to leave my teammates but think I made the right one."