What’s the value of a wide receiver in the ultimate team sport?

Your three-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and disenchanted Deion Branch appear ready to give us a real-life demonstration this season.

Branch is willing to shell out $14,000 a day for the privilege of collecting dust while under contract, secure in the conviction that he could double that number and add three zeroes when he signs his next long-term deal.

Meanwhile, the franchise seems content to sit back, shine its three Lombardi trophies and reiterate its staunch, title-tested belief that no player shall be venerated above the team.

We’re coming off a winter and spring in which the Patriots unloaded the kicker responsible for more walk-off hysterics than David Ortiz and the preeminent pass rusher in their prevailing defensive scheme.

Tell me if you truly believe they care about who’s lining up in the slot and catching nine-yard outs from Joe Montana Jr.

Not taking sides here. My first impression is to wish a pox upon both their houses. But you have to wonder if Branch and his agent, Jason Chayut, are outsmarting themselves.

You’ve heard of “system” guys who put up numbers thanks to a specific coach and coordinator or a wrinkle in the playbook that turns the league on its ear until the copycats get hold of it. Until further notice, Kurt Warner is a system quarterback. With one of their most notable non-moves of the offseason, the Patriots gambled that Willie McGinest is a system defensive lineman, and an aging one at that.

Almost every wideout is born with a system set of hands. Most championship teams outfit themselves with serviceable, overachieving flankers, then allow them to fly the coop and mortgage their Super Bowl rings for the promises of love and lucre in a new market. This is also known as the Antwaan Randle El Principle.

You could make the case that Deion Branch is in that category. Yes, he is a Super Bowl MVP. So are defensive backs Larry Brown and Dexter Jackson, both of whom disappeared from the radar screen so quickly that I’m expecting to see them surface as NFL Network studio analysts any second now.

Branch’s individual honor in the Big Game With The Roman Numerals was more a concerted effort by the media to be different and give the award to someone other than Tom Brady than anything else. His 11 catches against the Philadelphia Eagles and 10 versus the Carolina Panthers in back-to-back Super Bowls reflect Brady’s command of the big stage. It’s impossible to know what they really tell us about Branch.

Compared to the rest of Branch’s career, those numbers stand out like Randy Moss at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes convention. Branch’s average National Football League season in his four years out of Louisville: 53 catches, 686 yards, four touchdowns.

Decent numbers. Alvin Harper numbers compared to Michael Irvin. John Taylor numbers compared to Jerry Rice. Not the kind of numbers that should persuade the dominant team of the decade to slide the chips to the center of the table and begrudgingly mutter, “all in.”

By holding out, Branch is seeking star treatment. He is looking for Moss money, or to be spoken in the same sentence as Terrell Owens and Keyshawn Johnson.

Aren’t those the three most vaunted playmakers at that position in the last decade? And haven’t they gained their most notoriety in that stretch by not playing or being not wanted?

That should tell us something. It certainly ought to give Branch pause before he follows through with his reported strategy of holding out until Week 10, returning to the team just under the cut-off line so he is eligible for free agency in 2007.

In theory, I suppose that means Branch will take three or four weeks of training camp on his own time before blending in with his wounded, whirlpool-worshipping teammates for the December stretch drive.

Let’s hope the reception is cold as a playoff night game in Foxboro. And let’s hope Bill Belichick calls No. 83’s bluff. Branch can do what he likes for legality’s sake and to protect his market status for next season, but certainly the coach should be under no compulsion to play him.

Jon Gruden and Andy Reid just said ‘no’ to similar antics. Certainly the recognized genius of his coaching generation won’t tolerate a guy who has shown himself to be little more than a fair-to-middling receiver trying to run the asylum.

Hey, the Patriots aren’t blameless here. New England is behaving like a team that learned its lesson from the Dallas Cowboys’ and San Francisco 49ers’ salary cap-related collapses after their dominance of the 1990s.

After taking a pass on McGinest and Adam Vinatieri, though, you would think the Patriots would show greater interest in keeping one of the other two or three guys whom fans see (rightly or wrongly) as being responsible for those three championships. And any offer that would make Branch less than one of the top 10 receivers in the game is probably an insulting one. System or not, the other choices right now are Troy Brown and Reche Caldwell.

Branch is under contract, though. Far as we know, he wasn’t cornered, held against his will and forced to autograph that legal document. So it’s time to man up, play, show the world he is that good and reap the benefits next spring.

After all, this is New England. This is the franchise Belichick built. To express the equation in Biblical proportions, Bill is the vine here. Everybody else is merely a Branch.

Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. His e-mail is [email protected]


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