The long and winding road back to Foxborough for Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch took another unexpected turn yesterday when Branch filed two grievances against the team not long after the Patriots refused to accept trade offers from the Seattle Seahawks or New York Jets by a 4 p.m. deadline imposed by the Patriots.
The grievances allege the Patriots failed to negotiate in good faith over an extension of Branch's contract and broke a verbal agreement to trade the player for a ``fair and reasonable offer" after negotiations over an extension broke down irretrievably. The Patriots' alleged failure to cooperate with a trade is addressed by a non-injury grievance, which has been expedited by the players' union and will result in a hearing within seven days. Representatives of the union and the NFL Management Council will meet over the weekend to seek a date for that hearing. It will be heard by John Feerick of the Fordham University School of Law or Shyam Das of Pittsburgh. Branch will be represented by NFL Players Association general counsel Richard Berthelsen, outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler, an antitrust expert, and Branch's personal attorney, Peter Ginsberg .
The charge that the Patriots did not bargain in good faith with Branch will be decided in a separate case filed with special master Stephen Burbank of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Under the collective bargaining agreement, the special master has jurisdiction over cases alleging a club violated its obligation to negotiate a player's contract in good faith.
The first case alleges the Patriots reached a binding contract with Branch that he would be traded if another club offered them compensation ``comparable to what other clubs have received for players of similar value to Branch." The grievance claims, and the Jets confirmed last night, that such comparable value was in the form of a second-round draft pick. The Jets hold both their own pick and the Redskins' second-round pick for 2007, and it is the latter that was offered to New England.
If Washington finishes near where it has been projected this season, that pick would be slightly better than where New England selected Branch in 2002 (second round, 65th overall).
Although it had been widely speculated that Branch would find no suitors after the Patriots told him he had seven days to negotiate an acceptable contract with another club and then a trade with New England, Branch and agent Jason Chayut came up with two similar offers, from the Jets and Seahawks. Both were six-year deals worth roughly $39 million with $13 million upfront and $23 million spread over the first three years. That is about 30 percent higher than New England's best offer, a five-year, $28 million deal with $11 million guaranteed. The Patriots had also offered a three-year extension with an $8 million signing bonus split evenly over two years and salaries of $1.4 million, $4.3 million, and $4.75 million. Branch would have been forced to play out the final year of his rookie contract at the $1.05 million he was set to earn this season before a daily fine of $14,000 began being assessed against him once training camp opened and he did not report.
As of the end of preseason this weekend, that brings Branch's fines to $518,000, not including a fine for missing the mandatory spring minicamp. In addition, the Patriots might try to go after a fifth of his original signing bonus, which would amount to another $200,000. If they did, that would mean Branch would have already lost more than $700,000. The team cannot continue to fine him once the season begins. It can only withhold his weekly game checks.
The Patriots' decision to allow Branch to shop himself let him confirm what he and Chayut felt all along -- that his value was far in excess of what New England was offering and nearly identical to what receiver Reggie Wayne received from the Colts to forgo free agency this spring. Wayne signed a six-year, $40 million deal, with a $13.5 million signing bonus paid out this year.
Typical of the hard-ball nature of the negotiations on both sides, the Patriots issued a terse statement at 4:01 p.m. yesterday, saying, ``No trade has been consummated. Deion Branch remains under contract to the New England Patriots." One league general manager said last night it was his opinion that ``New England never intended to trade the player. I don't know what their intentions were."
According to the Jets, their offer of a second-round choice was flatly rejected, with no counter demand made by the Patriots. There was talk circulating yesterday that New England was demanding two first-round picks for Branch, but Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum said last night, ``That didn't happen. They didn't ask for anything."