It was Homecoming at my alma mater this past weekend, and it was a poignant one at that. But Sunday in the NFL also featured homecomings: Deion Branch's first game back at Gillette as a Patriot; Randy Moss's first game back in Minnesota's Metrodome.
The two are linked by more than that, of course; while the contractual dealings that moved each wide receiver to a new (old) home in the last week were separate, from a Patriots' fan's perspective, it might as well have been a straight-up trade.
Branch is back to fill more than just the wide-receiver's role, you see. Even if Brandon Tate is being discussed as a potential deep-pass weapon (though he didn't seem to be used all that much in that capacity yesterday), it's clearly Branch that's stepped in to replace Moss in the role of Brady's sidekick.Yesterday he was seen sitting in the spot on the bench directly to Tom Brady's left, exactly where Moss used to be.
In his press conference following the harrowing, exhilarating overtime victory over the Ravens yesterday, Branch expressed gratitude to the Patriots organization for bringing him back (though the gratitude should've been theirs -- he took a stiff pay cut, about $4 million or so, to return). But when it came to Tom Brady, Branch made abundantly clear what his primary motivation was for returning to New England.
"Tom [Brady] makes everything so much easier," he said in response to the first question from reporters.
And then it continued:
Tuesday was kind of crazy. They pretty much had to hold Tom back because he was all antsy. 'I've got to get you the ball' and this and that. Coach was like, 'Look, son. I'm going to pretty much take you out of practice every now and then because Tom is trying to get you the ball 20 times.' This was the first day of practice. He was excited. I was excited, too. I just didn't want to get out there and get to moving around and start messing up the offense not knowing what to do...
And continued, to his concluding words:
...playing with this guy, he just makes you feel a little bit more than what you really are. I know this would never happen - I give him so much credit because he deserves it - but true enough I wish every receiver would get the opportunity to play with this guy because he's amazing. He's amazing.
In his first game back with the Patriots, Deion Branch led the receiving corps with 9 catches for 98 yards and a touchdown. He was lionized by Patriots fans from his first, relatively insignificant, routine 8-yard catch to the touchdown reception that put the Patriots within three points of tying the Ravens and overtime, to his crucial role in the later drive that would put the Patriots in range to score the tying field goal. Branch accounted for more than a third of the 90 yards the Patriots traversed from their own 14 to the Ravens' 6 in that instance, and racked up more than a third of his day's total with 37 yards receiving on that drive alone.
Afterwards, it looked like his smile would permanently split his face. There were times in that "yes, sir," "no, sir", press conference where it seemed like there were tears in his eyes.
Of course it's easy to say, now that Branch has made the money he sought with Seattle, that he wishes he'd never left the Patriots. And while he never put on a bombastic display of demands for 'respect' and attention, he made his rejection of the Patriots' 2006 contract offer unmistakably clear, with a holdout that drew at least some controversy.
But cut to a few hours later at the Metrodome, with Randy Moss back in purple, wearing his original No. 84 (which, perhaps coincidentally, had also been assigned to Branch by the Patriots). He had a respectable, if not spectacular day, and also led his team's receivers for the game with five receptions for 55 yards, though the game's single touchdown pass had gone elsewhere, and Moss didn't get a sniff of the ball in the first half.
And his face on that Minnesota sideline was a downright sulk. Sourness just radiated from him. He was as visibly dour as Branch had been exuberant.
The differences between Sunday's experiences for Branch and for Moss weren't as wide statistically or monetarily as they seemed emotionally. On that level, anyway, there was the sense of an allegory, an archetypal cycle, playing out. And it was a cautionary tale.