BOSTON (CBS) — All’s fair in love, war, and playoff football … but even this seems out of bounds.
The Colts announced on Monday afternoon that they agreed to terms with free agent wide receiver Deion Branch, a longtime Patriots receiver and favorite of quarterback Tom Brady. The move comes just five days before the Colts will visit Gillette Stadium to take on the Patriots in the divisional round of the playoffs.
The Colts made the announcement along with the news that receiver Josh Lenz was elevated from the practice squad to the active roster, before listing paragraph after paragraph about Branch’s accolades earned while with the Patriots. Here’s a taste:
“Branch is a two-time Super Bowl winner and was awarded the Pete Rozelle Trophy as the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXXIX,” the announcement read. “His 11 receptions in the game tied the Super Bowl record, also achieved by Jerry Rice, Dan Ross and Wes Welker. Branch also led all receivers in Super Bowl XXXVIII and has totaled a combined 21 receptions in three Super Bowl appearances, which ranks third all-time, trailing only Jerry Rice (33) and Andre Reed (27).
“Branch set a team playoff record with 153 receiving yards on eight catches in the Patriots’ 2005 Divisional Playoff game at Denver. He also grabbed a 73-yard completion in the game, establishing the longest reception in Patriots playoff history. Branch was the NFL’s leading receiver in the 2004 playoffs, pacing the league in receptions (16) and receiving yards (264). In addition to being named Super Bowl XXXIX MVP, he was selected as the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Week following the AFC Championship Game (1/23/05), when he led all receivers with 116 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown grab.”
What the Colts didn’t announce was why they were signing Branch, a 34-year-old who has taken zero NFL snaps this season, just five days prior to the biggest game of the year. Whether it’s because they believe he can contribute come Saturday night, or whether it’s because they believe they can exploit that aforementioned relationship with Brady to gain inside information is unclear. But, well … it’s difficult to draw any conclusion other than the latter.
To make matters even more interesting, the Colts didn’t even include Branch’s name in any headline, instead posting the news on a blog titled “Indianapolis Colts Make Roster Moves.”
Branch played for the Patriots last season, when he caught just 16 passes for 145 yards and zero touchdowns in 10 games. Branch returned to the Patriots in 2010, after he spent four-plus mostly disappointing seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. He hit the ground running in his second go-around with the team that drafted him, as he caught nine passes for 98 yards and a touchdown against the Ravens in October 2010. He caught 48 passes for 706 yards and five touchdowns in 11 games for New England that season, and he had the second-most receiving yards (59) in the Patriots’ playoff loss to the Jets that season.
Branch managed to catch 51 passes for 702 yards and five touchdowns in 2011, and he had a 61-yard touchdown catch in the playoff blowout of the Broncos at Gillette Stadium. But his ability dropped off quite a bit after that season, and he didn’t survive final roster cuts coming out of training camp in 2012. The team signed him in mid-September, waived him in mid-November, and signed him again in December. His impact was minimal in the team’s two playoff games, as he caught two passes for 10 yards.
It’s a testament to Branch’s character that he ever had that Patriots reunion late in his career. After he was drafted by New England in the second round of the 2002 draft, he immediately clicked with Brady and became a vital member of the offense. His best season statistically came in 2005, when he caught 78 passes for 998 yards and five touchdowns in the regular season and added 10 receptions for 189 yards in two playoff games. Following that season, he held out of Patriots camp and eventually was traded away to Seattle in exchange for a first-round pick, which was used to select safety Brandon Meriweather.
Branch certainly left on icy terms with the team, but head coach Bill Belichick, owner Robert Kraft and most of all Brady were happy to welcome him back just four years later. But it promises to be a very different story should that trio encounter Branch on Saturday night at Gillette.
Colts owner Jim Irsay has been known to pull some unorthodox moves, but signing a veteran receiver who hasn’t taken a snap in the NFL in the past 12 months in order to get into the heads of his opponent five days before the biggest game of the year? That’s certainly a new one.