Change up;Moss gone, but Branch on his way back to Pats
We're about to find out.
After trading Moss to Minnesota for a third-round draft pick last week, New England reacquired Branch from Seattle, the Seahawks confirmed last night.
While Moss was a maelstrom waiting to happen - at some point, his unhappiness over the lack of a contract extension was undoubtedly going to suck the team down with him - Branch returns, by all accounts, as a solid citizen, and gives quarterback Tom Brady another option.
The price seems steep - the Patriots reportedly sent a fourth-round draft pick to the Seahawks - when you consider Branch may provide only depth. You can expect Branch in Foxboro today as New England prepares for Sunday's game against the Baltimore Ravens at Gillette Stadium.
Like Moss, Branch could not come to terms with the Patriots on a new contract before he was traded to Seattle - for a first-round draft pick - before the 2006 season. But the former Super Bowl MVP never established himself as a No. 1 receiver for the Seahawks.
Still, his numbers this season - 13 catches for 112 yards and a touchdown - are similar to Moss' - nine catches, 139 yards, three TDs - though they have much different games.
Moss is 33 and was deep threat. Branch is 31 and is a possession receiver. But it was Moss' looming threat of disruption, distraction and disorder that led the Patriots to deal him to Minnesota, not his play on the field.
As coach Bill Belichick is fond of saying, the team has moved on. Moved where, though?
Some things will change offensively in Moss' absence, as one would suspect when you subtract any player who demands extra defensive attention in the equation. That was the case when Brady went down two years ago and Matt Cassel stepped in.
Some things won't change - just as they didn't in Brady's absence.
"We're not all of a sudden going to go back and make up new plays," director of player personnel Nick Caserio said. "We have a foundation that's in place. We've installed an offensive system. So, like we do any week, week to week we look at the team. We figure out, `OK, this play works against this coverage. This play works in this situation.'
"So from our perspective, nothing is going to change from a game-plan standpoint in terms of how we go about it."
The Patriots have historically been a game-plan team. That is, they adjust their offense each game hopefully to take advantage of their opponent's particular weaknesses.
So the plan remains the same, beginning with Sunday's game against the Ravens.
"We'll go through the same process we go through every week, which is look at the team that we're playing and look at what our options are, and try to come up with the best game plan that we can against them," Belichick said. "I don't think it's any different.
"We have guys that go in and out of the lineup from week to week based on injuries or whatever the circumstances are. It's not that unusual to game plan with a player one week and then without him the next week, and then with them the following week or whatever. I think we'll still be using the same playbook."
The Ravens rank third in the league in total defense (257.8 yards) and fifth in scoring defense (14.4 points), so there's nothing like jumping right into the deep end of the pool.
The Patriots are 11th in total offense (344.2) and first in scoring offense (32.8). Even eliminating the two touchdowns each scored by the defense and special teams gives the offense a 25.8 average, good for a No. 6 ranking.
In other words, they've been doing something right. And while Moss played a key role, the success of the offense is also a testament to his teammates.
"We have a lot of confidence in the players that we have on this team offensively," Caserio said. "There is a lot of time that's been put in through the spring, through the camps, through the preseason, into the regular season.
"Our players, we expect them to show up to work hard, to prepare each week, and to go out there and to play to the best of their abilities. Hopefully, our players will do that and the outcome will be positive."
The Patriots have shown an unexpected ability to run the football with BenJarvus Green-Ellis providing bash and Danny Woodhead slash. Veterans Sammy Morris and Fred Taylor are also in the backfield mix-and-match.
Belichick said Taylor, out for the Miami game with a toe injury, "is definitely doing better," but offered no insight as to whether that might mean a return Sunday.
As for the passing game, Brady is currently the NFL's top-rated quarterback. He has a boffo 69.7 completion percentage to go along with nine touchdowns and two interceptions. And that accuracy should only improve with the addition of the sure-handed Branch.
Moss had three of those scoring strikes, but he also dropped 13 of the 22 passes to come his way.
Conversely, rookie tight ends Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski have combined to catch 24 of 27 passes when they've been targets. Whether they see an increase in opportunities remains to be seen, but it wouldn't surprise anyone if Hernandez - a tight end in name only, anyway - started regularly lining up outside because of his ability to garner huge gobs of yardage once he gets into open space.
It also stands to reason that veteran tight end Alge Crumpler, who has seen only one pass come his way (an incompletion), could be busier in the weeks to come.
As for the wideouts, the cupboard is hardly bare - even before Branch arrives today. This is nothing like 2006 when Brady made due with an average Reche Caldwell, an aging Troy Brown, and an atrocious Chad Jackson.
Wes Welker has yet to display his renowned explosiveness and elusiveness after making a catch, but he has shown 26 times that his hands haven't deserted him. While no one is comparing him to Moss, sophomore burner Brandon Tate has been impressive with his ability to run intermediate to deep sideline routes.
Caserio mentioned that rookie Taylor Price, another speedster with good size, has been coming along nicely. Then there's Julian Edelman, forgotten thus far after being hampered by a foot injury early.
"You have different receivers that you throw to that all present different challenges to the defense," Brady said prior to Moss' departure. "We have some guys underneath we throw it to, some guys intermediate we throw to, some guys deep that we throw to, and that's what we're trying to do.
"We're trying to spread it and make them defend everything. Because if it becomes one-dimensional and you start throwing to one or two guys, then that's not hard to defend."
Finally, there is the possibility O'Brien will be more relaxed when it comes to calling plays because he no longer has to concern himself with getting called out by Moss for a lack of inactivity.
No, the Patriots are not a better team without Moss. But they are better off for not having to worry about him as much as opposing defenses do.