FOXBORO, Mass. — After spending much of the last couple of days in airports, new Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch felt refreshed to walk into the New England locker room Tuesday and see some good friends, particularly quarterback Tom Brady.
As soon as they finished catching up, Brady gave Branch a crash course on the offensive play book. They walked out to practice together, with Brady continuing his tutorial, and just a few minutes into practice, Brady went straight at Branch with that list of plays.
That mixture of chemistry, both on the field and off, helped Brady and Branch experience so much success in New England from 2002-05, and they hit the turf running again Tuesday.
“We have a quarterback such as Tom,” Branch said. “He can do a lot of things. You’ve just got to make sure you put the guys in the right place, and just follow this guy leading. He won’t lead you in the wrong direction.”
The Patriots acquired Branch — their second-round draft pick in 2002 — Monday from the Seahawks in exchange for a 2011 fourth-round pick in a move that was almost symbolic of their apparent rededication to the offensive scheme that helped them win three Super Bowls in the early part of the decade.
Branch caught 213 passes for 2,744 yards and 14 touchdowns in 53 regular-season games with the Patriots, and he added 41 receptions for 629 yards and two scores in eight playoff games with New England.
Yet, surprisingly, the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIX believed he could have been a much better player early in his career, adding that he’s a vastly smarter receiver as a 31-year-old.
“I truly understand the game and how to study people, how to study guys, your opponent,” Branch said, when asked how he has changed in the last four years. “I think my first four years [in New England], I was just playing off all athleticism, and I was getting away with it for a little bit. There were a couple of games here and there back in the past, but I think now I know how to sit down, break down the film and watch my opponent.”
Branch actually sounded surprised that he wasn’t traded back to the Patriots when rumors surfaced in 2008 and 2009, when the Seahawks were going through some major organizational changes, and he figured he’d be cut loose. On the flip side, when the Patriots traded Randy Moss last week, Branch said he didn’t even think about a trade to New England.
Branch also mentioned he was willing to reconstruct his contract to help the Patriots save some cash. He is on the books for $11.42 million in salary between 2010 and 2011, although one-quarter of this season’s salary has already been paid.
Either way, it sounds like Branch wants to make it work better during his second tour in New England. His first run came to a screeching halt over a contract dispute — one that he said he didn’t regret, but wished never happened — and the reflective Branch seemed to be grateful for a second opportunity with his first team. And this chance, he believed, was made possible because he and Bill Belichick were able to remain close, despite that 2006 breakup.
Branch said things remained pretty similar in New England, aside from the construction of Patriot Place, a flurry of young personnel additions and a slightly revamped playbook. (He even joked that they didn’t run the few plays he could remember during his first practice.)
Branch knew, no matter how many memories circled through his head Tuesday, that Sunday’s game against the Ravens would be a different story. That’s when his reunion will feel a little more complete.
“It will really set in probably on game day, just to be back here, especially [with Brady] and with this team, under the same coach that brought me here,” Branch said. “I do feel like I’m back at home.”