- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 21, 2006

By the time the real games start, all the serious horse-trading in the NFL is usually done. The salary cap makes it hard to take on big contracts once rosters have been set, and how many players, really, are worth the trouble? Especially since the New Guy figures to have some catching up to do, thus limiting his immediate impact.

That’s why the Seahawks’ acquisition of Deion Branch, the erstwhile Patriots holdout, is so intriguing. Branch has the potential to put Seattle back in the Super Bowl, and it has been more than 20 years since we’ve seen an in-season trade like that. You’d have to go back to the 1980s, to the Raiders picking up Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes at the ‘83 deadline — and going on to win it all — or to the 49ers adding Pro Bowl pass rusher Fred Dean in early ‘81 — then reeling off 15 victories in their last 16 games en route to the title.

Such deals are fairly common in other sports. (Perhaps Bobby Abreu will do for the Yankees this year what Haynes and Dean did for their teams.) But in pro football, which slams the trade window shut just six weeks into the season, they’re extremely rare. The last in-season swap of any note took place two years ago, when the Chargers lost Reche Caldwell to injury and hurriedly sent a pair of draft choices to the Bucs for AWOL wideout Keenan McCardell. The Bolts didn’t make the Super Bowl, but they did finish 12-4 — and they wouldn’t have without McCardell.

What can Branch, who’s expected to be activated this week, contribute to the Seattle cause the rest of the way? McCardell’s 2004 performance provides a clue. In his seven games with San Diego, he caught 31 passes for 393 yards and a touchdown. Double those totals — Deion has a chance to play in 14 games this season — and you get 62-786-2, numbers comparable to those put up last year by Bobby Engram, the Seahawks’ leading receiver (67-778-3).

And let’s not forget: In McCardell, who was 34 at the time, the Chargers were getting a player whose best days were behind him; the 27-year-old Branch should be just entering his prime. Granted, Seattle gave up a No. 1 for him, but what are the odds a wideout of Deion’s ilk will be available at the bottom of the first round next April (which is where the ‘Hawks undoubtedly will be drafting)?

Heck, Branch has already had an effect on the Seattle offense, even though he hasn’t suited up yet. Did you see the game Darrell Jackson had Sunday against the Cardinals — five receptions for 127 yards and a TD? Nothing like a little competition to quicken everyone’s pulse. Jackson hasn’t had a performance like that since Week 3 of last season.

Mike Holmgren, meanwhile, has probably been drawing up pass plays in his sleep for Branch. Bringing in Deion, to go along with Jackson, Engram and Nate Burleson, will enable Holmgren to transition to more of a passing offense, one less reliant on Shaun Alexander. A wise move, inasmuch as Alexander turns 30 next year.

After Branch settles in, look for him to have the kind of seasons Antonio Freeman (84-1,412-14) and Robert Brooks (102-1,497-13) had under Holmgren in Green Bay. Nobody gets more out of his wideouts than Holmgren, and Branch may well be the best he’s had since Sterling Sharpe, maybe even since Jerry Rice. After all, what other receiver besides Deion has caught 21 passes in his first two Super Bowls?

Many are confounded by the Patriots’ unwillingness to meet Branch’s price. It’s almost as if Bill Belichick, by letting Deion and David Givens go, has adopted the attitude toward pass catchers that the Giants had when he was with them in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Bill Parcells and GM George Young never drafted a wideout in the first round, never placed all that much importance on the position. Five dollars and an Ottis Anderson bobblehead if you can name the Giants’ starting receivers in Super Bowl XXI against the Broncos. (Answer: Lionel Manuel and Stacy Robinson, with Bobby Jackson and Navy’s Phil McConkey coming off the bench.)

That said, the Patriots did well to come away with a first-round pick for Branch. Had he left after this season as a free agent, they wouldn’t have gotten any more than a third-round pick as compensation. With two No. 1s, they’ll have the option of moving up, way up, in the draft — though assuredly not to take a wideout.

What’s happening in New England with the exits of Branch, Givens, Willie McGinest, Adam Vinatieri et al is the same thing that happened to the Cowboys in the ‘90s after they won three Super Bowls in four years. It’s a fact of football life: Great teams break up, usually over money.

It happened to the ‘70s Dolphins when Larry Csonka, Paul Warfield and Jim Kiick jumped to the World Football League. It even happened to the ‘60s Packers; several of Vince Lombardi’s stars, including Jim Taylor, Jim Ringo and Ron Kramer, forced trades when the club wouldn’t give in to their demands.

One team’s loss is another’s gain. So it is with Deion Branch. No matter how the season turns out for the Seahawks, though, this much is clear: They’re going for it.

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