Renton – A soft-spoken man, most times Deion Branch lets his play do the talking.
But the perception is of the fleet-footed receiver who has been in the training room more than the practice field during his tenure in Seattle.
However, Branch’s play the past two weeks has reminded Seattle Seahawks fans why Seattle gave up a first-round pick and signed the former Super Bowl MVP for the Patriots to a six-year $39 million deal to be Matt Hasselbeck’s main target in the West Coast offense.
Against is former team two weeks ago, Branch was the spark plug that almost led Seattle to victory. He finished with four catches for 88 yards and two touchdowns.
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And last week, in the Seahawks’ win at St. Louis, Branch was just as effective. He finished with five receptions for 76 yards, including a key catch on a corner route late in the contest that put Seattle in position to kick the winning field goal.
However, Branch said his recent, solid play has nothing to do with showing his value to the team; he’s simply been given chances to make key contributions and made the most of them.
“I don’t feel like I’m trying to prove myself,” Branch said. “If I’m given the opportunity I will come through and make my share of plays. … The biggest thing is you can only make plays if you are given the opportunity to make plays. And coach has been doing a good job of game planning.”
The reality is Branch has played in 31 of a possible 43 regular-season games while in Seattle, missing large portions of two seasons with injuries to his foot, heel, and the most serious, ACL reconstructive knee surgery during the offseason. He has yet to have a 1,000-yard receiving season since arriving to Seattle. His best season was his first, when he finished 2006 with 53 receptions for 725 yards and four touchdowns. But those are not the numbers you would expect from a team’s No. 1 receiver.
Branch, 29, is set to make $5 million next season, the fourth of the six-year deal. The missed games from bruising his heel after returning from offseason knee surgery contributed to the instability Seattle has had at the position this season, with the Seahawks having 11 different receivers on the active list this season.
His contract and his history of injuries will give team president Tim Ruskell and coach-in-waiting Jim Mora some tough decisions to make on what to do with the receiver corps in the offseason.
Veteran Bobby Engram, who will be a free agent this offseason, came to training camp frustrated because the team would not renegotiate his deal after he finished with a career-high 94 receptions for 1,147 yards and six touchdowns in 2007. Engram missed three games this season with a cracked shoulder blade.
Seattle brass also does not know how injured receivers Nate Burleson (knee), Logan Payne (knee) and Ben Obomanu (collarbone) will play after suffering season-ending injuries this year.
Because of the team’s uncertainty at wide receiver, many mock drafts have Seattle picking Texas Tech redshirt sophomore Michael Crabtree in the first round of the draft, should he declare himself eligible.
At 6-foot-2 Crabtree would give Seattle a big, physical playmaker on the outside, similar to Arizona’s Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, and perhaps a true No. 1 receiver to bolster Seattle’s passing game.
However, Branch said he’s not concerned about what will happen in the offseason, and would like to remain in Seattle.
“The last thing I’m worried about is what’s going to happen next year or this year,” Branch said. “Put it like this, if nobody is given an opportunity to make a play, then nobody will be here. So that’s not my job. I can’t control what management does. What we must do is take care of what we can control, and that’s playing the game of football.
“But I want to be here. Yeah, I do. I can say and will say that. And yeah, I think we can turn it around.”
Seattle coach Mike Holmgren said when the Seahawks first got Branch he thought the fleet-footed receiver’s skills fit nicely with the precision and tempo required to successfully run his offense. And, if healthy, he still thinks Branch could be solid contributor.
“You can see it makes a difference,” Holmgren said about having a healthy Branch on the field. “Now we can play and we can complete balls and he can beat coverage. He’s got good quickness. It changed the whole program. Unfortunately, we didn’t have that for a long time. He’s a good player. I hope now, for the rest of his time here, he can avoid the injury bug. He’s a quick little guy who’s a very talented receiver who wants to play, who is a threat.”
Along with wanting to remain with the Seahawks, Branch thinks this year’s 3-11 record is just a hiccup, and that the team will return to its winning ways next season. He points to the team’s record in close games – Seattle is 1-7 in games decided by 10 points or fewer – as an indication the team is still competing.
“We’ve been hit with a lot of key injuries,” Branch said. “There’s a lot of guys that are counted on to go out and make plays for us that are injured or on the IR (injured reserve list), and we’re still right in the game.
“We know we have a good team. Our biggest thing is just staying healthy. And all of the guys in the locker room feel that way. It’s hard not to.”