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Wednesday, September 6, 2006
Squabble between Pats, Branch gets messier

By Len Pasquarelli
ESPN.com

Just when it appeared that the differences between the New England Patriots and holdout wide receiver Deion Branch couldn't get any messier, they did.

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The Patriots and the NFL have filed a motion questioning whether arbitrator John Feerick of the Fordham Law School has jurisdiction over the first of two grievances filed on Branch's behalf by the NFL Players Association, and tentatively scheduled to be heard Saturday. In that grievance, Branch is contending that the Patriots reneged on a verbal promise to trade him if he reached a contract agreement with another team and that club made a "fair and reasonable" trade proposal to compensate New England.

The league and the Patriots feel that, under terms of the collective bargaining agreement, Feerick does not have purview over the grievance and that it should be heard by "special master" Stephen Burbank, who is kind of a super-arbitrator, from the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

There is a Wednesday evening conference call, which is expected to include representatives from the NFLPA and the league's Management Council, to attempt to resolve the issue of jurisdiction.

While the jurisdictional conflict doesn't necessarily ramp up the level of enmity between the two sides, it does complicate things. And it could possibly delay a resolution as well. If it is decided that Feerick should not hear the grievance scheduled for Saturday, a hearing likely would not be scheduled before next week, possibly as late as Sept. 14.

Such a ruling would also, essentially, combine both grievances into one. In the second grievance, Branch is contending that New England officials failed to bargain with him in good faith.

Sources close to the four-year veteran said this week that Branch hopes for an expeditious ruling in the cases because he is anxious to return to the field. They reiterated, however, that he does not plan to return to the Patriots anytime soon, and maintained that his plans are to sit out until the final six games of the year. Under the collective bargaining agreement, Branch could report for those six games and gain a year of credit toward the pension program.

Branch needs to accrue one more season in the pension plan to become eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring.

That the two sides are now reduced to battling over jurisdictional matters in the grievance proceedings seems further evidence that there will be no rapprochement that allows Branch to return to the Patriots for the early part of the season.

On Aug. 25, the Patriots granted Branch permission, through Sept. 1 at 4 p.m., to seek a potential trade to another team. The Seattle Seahawks and New York Jets reached contract agreements with Branch on a six-year, $39 million deal that included $13 million in combined bonuses and would have paid him about $23 million over the first three years. But neither team could satisfy the demands of the Patriots, who were seeking first- and middle-round choices and Branch remained under contract to New England.

Under terms of the collective bargaining agreement, the Patriots were able to fine Branch $14,000 per day during his absence from camp, and he has accumulated more than $500,000 in fines. With the start of the season, New England can no longer impose daily fines, but can withhold Branch's game checks, beginning this week. His base salary for 2006 was to have been $1.05 million.

Branch, 27, is coming off a career year in 2005, when he had 78 receptions for 998 yards and five touchdowns. For his career, Branch, a second-round pick in the 2002 draft, has 213 catches for 2,744 yards and 14 touchdowns. He has appeared in 53 games and logged 42 starts. He earned most valuable player honors in Super Bowl XXXIX when he tied a title game record with 11 receptions, netting 133 yards.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.