By Rich Levine
There's no such thing as beginner's luck in the NFL, but beginners can still get very lucky.
Does that make sense?
Basically, what I'm saying is if you come into this league as a rookie and immediately start taking care of business, then it's not an accident. Of course, a fast start doesn't guarantee a trip to Canton, or even the Pro Bowl (that would have flowed a lot better if the game was still held in Hawaii or if I hadn't pointed it out), but at the very least it means you can play.
If a rookie receiver goes out and grabs 11 balls for 150 yards and a touchdown, you're not going to say, "Eh, beginner's luck." That's not how it works. You'll be impressed, excited, and either run and get him on your fantasy roster, or wish awful things on the friend who beat you to the punch. Guys don't luck into those numbers. They earn them. They deserve them.
So, there's the argument against "beginner's luck" in the NFL.
Deion Branch is an example of a rookie who got very lucky. The kind of luck that takes a young, somewhat unheralded receiver out of Conference USA and pairs him with one of the greatest quarterback in NFL history.
From the very beginning of Branch's time in New England, we knew the kid could play. First of all, he was easily the fastest receiver the Pats had had since a young Terry Glenn. OK, maybe he wasn't faster than Tony Simmons, but certainly quicker (and also knew how to play football). Not to mention Branch had the hands, heart, and boisterous, borderline-obnoxious confidence that typically breeds success at that position.
He paid dividends right away, too, with touchdowns in each of his first two games, and a Week 4 coming out party in which he diced up the Chargers for 13 catches and 128 yards.
At the time, we were all still a little jaded by what had happened with Glenn, so maybe we tempered our expectations to a certain extent. But we knew he had something special. We knew we had something special.
But plenty of "special" player comes through this league and fizzle out faster than you can say Peter Warrick. The ones who stick are the guys who not only have the skills, but, among other things, are lucky enough to have been drafted into a system that best allows them to put those skills to work whether it's the right offense, the right coach, or perhaps most importantly, the right quarterback.
In Branch's case, it was probably all three. But it's the last one that made the biggest difference.
"I haven't felt this way in four years . . . " he said after the game, speaking just about as genuinely as humanly possible. "Playing with this guy, he makes you feel a little bit more than what you really are. I give him so much credit, because he deserves it. I wish every receiver had an opportunity to play with this guy, because he's amazing."
Of course, Branch deserves some of the blame for why it had been four years since he felt the way he did on Sunday. Despite the fact that he'd had the fortune to be drafted by a perennial Super Bowl contender, and to play alongside the greatest friend an NFL receiver could have, Branch forced Bill Belichick to make the deal with Seattle. He fought his way out of town.
That's not to say he was without reason. Regardless of the circumstances that had facilitated his success, Branch (and the same goes for David Givens) had earned the right to cash in. For most players, that chance doesn't come around often; a guy's lucky make even one big payday in this league. So when the opportunity arises, you have to act. You want to be part of a team, but it's impossible not to be at least a little selfish. Otherwise, you'll be eaten alive especially when you're going head-to-head with The Sweatshirt.
So, that's what Branch did. And he got his wish. He got paid.
But in the process, he was forced to say goodbye to a special "something," or more specifically and I say this in the least cheesy way possible "someone" who'd had an indelible effect on his life and career.
There were 10 receivers selected ahead Branch in the 2002 draft, and among them are a few names you'll recognize former Patriots Donte Stallworth, Jabar Gaffney and Reche "Eye Balls" Caldwell, also Antwan Randle-El, Javon Walker and Antonio Bryant and a few guys you've already forgotten. Anyone seen Ashley Lelie lately? How about Tim Carter? In related news, who the hell is Tim Carter?
But for all the receivers taken before Branch in 2002, none has more career receptions. Throw in his two rings, and no one in that draft Randle-El's the only guy who's even close will leave a greater impact on the game than Branch.
Does that, in large part, have to do with Branch's own skills, determination and work ethic? Of course. But would he have emerged ahead of those other receivers (admittedly, it's not the most intimidating bunch), if he'd spent his first four seasons with a guy like Akili Smith? Or even just Matt Hasselbeck?
No. Branch is a proud guy and for good reason and even he'd admit as much. He was never the same player without Brady. He couldn't reach those same levels without a guy like Brady to give him the boost; to, in Branch's words, make him feel a little bit more than he really is.
But now he has a second chance. It's the return of Brady-to-Branch. And we're all lucky to have it back.