One day after skipping out on the team's charity golf tournament, Patriots wide receiver Deion Branch was again noticeably absent as New England opened a mandatory three-day veteran mini-camp on the sunny practice fields behind Gillette Stadium Tuesday morning.
And while Branch and his representatives have been pointedly silent on what now appears to be a true holdout heading into the final year of the former Super Bowl MVP's five-year rookie contract, Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick was quick to address the matter as part of his opening remarks in his morning press conference.
"I am not going to talk about anybody who's not here, other than I'll say that Branch's absence is unexcused," Belichick said.
Branch, who has earned minimum salary-type money in addition to his $1 million signing bonus since New England drafted him out of Louisville with the 65th selection in the 2002, is set to get just more than $1 million in 2006 thanks to escalators in the rookie deal. But much like Richard Seymour did a year ago in holding out of mini-camp and a portion of training camp before getting a bump in pay and then signing a lucrative $30 million extension this offseason, Branch appears to be putting the press on the negotiations for a long term extension. Reports earlier this offseason indicated Branch could be looking for a new deal that includes $12 million in bonus and guaranteed money.
Not surprisingly many of Branch's teammates were asked about his absence, something that becomes more and more common as the business side of the game continually infringes upon the actual on-field competition.
"Everybody that has been here has been in contract negotiations and it's just part of the business," Tom Brady said following the morning session. "I wouldn't look at it as anything more than it is. I wish he was here and I know he wishes he was here. But, blank happens, you know."
"He's got to do what he's got to do," wide receiver Troy Brown said. "That's between himself and the coaches and the staff or whoever it is doing the contracts. That's between them. The guys that are here in camp, we continue to work hard. That's about it. I'd like to see him around here one of these days, around here somewhere to just hang out and get dinner. But that's just the way he chose to go about doing it. That's his individual choice and nobody else's. Me, myself, I don't get involved with anybody else's deal. So I'll keep my mouth shut on that situation."
Belichick was quick to nip the Branch questions in the bud at his press conference, and he wasn't exactly willing to expand on his thoughts or say whether Branch would incur a fine thanks to his absence.
"I've said all I'm going to say. Discipline is between players and the team," Belichick said. "I don't talk about discipline. It's between the players and the team."
Pressing him on the matter didn't help.
"I think I've said all I'm going to say about that," Belichick said. "I think I covered it. If you want to talk about anybody that's here, I'll be happy to talk about them."
Compounding Branch's absence is fact that while it's still relatively early in the offseason, New England's depth chart at wide receiver is a bit thin. Branch, coming of his best season in which he established career highs with 78 catches for 998 yards and five touchdowns, is the clear No. 1 target. But with David Givens' lucrative departure through free agency, the rest of the crop includes free agent addition Reche Caldwell, second-round pick Chad Jackson, the aging 14-year veteran Brown and a large group of unknowns lead by Bam Childress.
But not having his favorite weapon at his mini-camp disposal isn't at the top of Brady's list of worries. Branch has shown the ability to step right in and make plays, regardless of preparation or practice time. In 2004 he was inactive for seven weeks with a knee injury only to return with a team-high six catches and 106 yards in a start in Kansas City. And last season he was held out of the team's four preseason games only to pace the offense with seven catches for 99 yards in the season opening win over Oakland.
"We always [work together] and it's not going to take long because I know him so well," Brady said of eventually getting his top target back in the passing mix. "When he gets here it's not going to take any time at all. He'll get out here and you'll think he didn't miss a day.
"He's the guy I'm least concerned about. I'm less concerned about him than I am about myself. That's something totally out of my control. I really have to work on hitting the guys who were open out here, which I certainly didn't do enough of today."
The bottom line is, as has been the case with holdouts in the past with Seymour and others, as it will for all holdouts in the future, the players and coaches that are in mini-camp can only focus on themselves and what they can do to make the New England squad better heading toward a new season.
"As far as what's going on in Deion's head, I can't answer that question," Brown said. "The feeling of the team, I know my feeling is that I have to go out here and go to work. That's Deion's business. He has to take care of what he has to take care of. I have to take care of what I have to take care of and I'm trying to earn a spot on the team right now. That's about it. Personally, he's a friend of mine and I talk to him but other than that … out here it's all football."
And for one day of practice, at least, football didn't involve having Branch on the field for fellow wideout Brown and the rest of his Patriots teammates.