How long ago those days seem.
The Seattle Seahawks' receiver, now 28, has lived the life of a man twice his age -- at least in football terms.
Since joining the Seahawks in 2006, Branch has yet to play a full season, due in large part to foot and knee injuries. Once a Super Bowl MVP during a four-year career with the New England Patriots, Branch has since been part of a franchise that has spiraled from a Super Bowl participant to the depths of the NFL.
That Branch has been unable to live up to the high expectations is a big reason why the Seahawks have fallen on hard times.
"It has been a little crazy," Branch told Boston-area reporters in a conference call on Wednesday. "To sum it up, it has been different for me. My first four years were all good."
After the Seahawks gave up a future first-round pick in the 2007 draft to acquire Branch in Sept. 2006, the veteran caught 53 passes over 14 games in his first season as a Seahawk.
But a foot injury limited him to 11 games and 49 receptions in 2007, and then Branch tore his anterior cruciate ligament in a playoff loss to Green Bay.
While Branch battled to come back in time for Week 4 of the 2008 season, his return was short-lived. A heel injury sidelined Branch during the first half of the Oct. 5 game against the New York Giants, and he missed five more games.
Branch had his most productive game of the season in Seattle's last outing, catching five passes in a 34-9 loss to Dallas on Thanksgiving Day, but he has just 13 receptions for 152 yards on the season. And Branch hasn't scored a touchdown since December 2007.
"Certainly, we needed someone to step forward and kind of be the leader of the (receiver) group," coach Mike Holmgren said last week in assessing Branch's career with the Seahawks, "and he never really got the chance to. He really didn't, with his injury and so on."
As Branch prepares for his first game against the team that traded him, he is a shadow of the man who helped the Patriots win back-to-back Super Bowls in his second and third NFL seasons.
"It has been a little strange, but I have been fighting through it and staying positive," Branch said during his conference call last week. "The team has been supporting me. All of my teammates have been supporting me and standing behind me. Other than that, I feel like I don't take anything for granted."
Branch might still be with the Patriots had it not been for a somewhat ugly contract dispute in the summer of 2006. New England balked at his demands for a high-end salary and left him in limbo for most of training camp that year. Branch eventually filed a grievance against the team, so the Patriots shipped him off to the defending NFC champion Seahawks for a first-round pick in the following spring's draft.
On Sept. 11, 2006, Branch arrived in Seattle and was soon given a six-year, $39 million contract by the Seahawks.
The Patriots went on to use the first-round pick on University of Miami safety Brandon Meriweather, who is currently starting on the New England defense and leads the team with four interceptions. Meanwhile, Branch's career has been underwhelming -- to say the least.
In hindsight, the Branch trade might get panned in local circles, but the other options might not have worked out much better. Had Seattle kept the No. 24 pick and used it on a wide receiver, the possibilities might not have had the success that Branch has.
While No. 32 pick Anthony Gonzalez has caught 85 passes with the Indianapolis Colts -- 23 more than Branch has in the same span of games -- receivers like Robert Meachem (New Orleans, at No. 27), Craig Davis (San Diego, at No. 30) and Sidney Rice (Minnesota, at No. 44) have lacked production.
Branch's big contract numbers -- his base salary is scheduled to jump from $3.5 in 2008 to $4.94 in 2009 -- make his future in Seattle a tenuous one.
But no matter what happens, he'll always have the memories -- of New England, that is.
"There's a lot of great memories over there," Branch told Seattle reporters last week. "I spent four years with those guys."
As for the Super Bowl memories?
"Once the game was over, it was over," Branch said. "Once we had the parade, it was over. Then it was all about next year. It's a little awkward to answer that. That's why you never see me with the ring."
While the Patriots went on to compete in another Super Bowl after going unbeaten during the 2007 regular season, Branch and the Seahawks have fallen on hard times.
"Seattle paid a good price to get him," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said last week, "a No. 1 draft choice, and (the Seahawks) gave him a significant contract to go with it. So I think that speaks to what they thought of him.
"We thought a lot of him too. We tried to re-sign him; we just weren't able to do it."
This afternoon, Branch will get a chance to get back at his former team.
"It would help to just win any game," he said when asked about his motivation for today's game. "Just to win any game."
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