As we've blasted through Great Patriots Debate after Great Patriots Debate these last few weeks, the "RECENCY BIAS!" outcry has flowed steadily (and sometimes in all caps) on social media.
It was warranted when we batted around the idea of the best first-round pick in franchise history and John Hannah trailed Ty Law for about 23 hours during our 24-hour poll. Hannah, maybe the greatest guard in NFL history, surpassed Law by a percentage point just before voting closed.
What people have seen most recently has to have a real impact on these kinds of discussions. No doubt. But nostalgia can be just as potent. The Kevin Faulk vs. James White debate pitted against one another these two phenomena. So will today's.
It's a straightforward ask: Deion Branch or Danny Amendola?
How you interpret that question is up to you. Would you rather Branch's career or Amendola's? If the Patriots could have had only one, which receiver would you choose? If you had a game to win and you could only pick one at the height of his powers, who would you run out there?
Different approaches to these questions are what make your responses interesting. Variety is the spice of life and all that. But before you decide, consider the following.
Branch is one of Tom Brady's all-time favorite receivers. Bill Belichick once had to ban Brady from throwing to Branch during training camp because the defense couldn't stop them and Brady wouldn't stop looking his buddy's way. In his first run with the Patriots (2002-2005), the second-round pick out of Louisville was dynamite — particularly in the postseason.
Branch had 43 receptions as a rookie in what was a disappointing 2002 season for the team, but he then followed that up with 57 grabs for 803 yards en route to a Super Bowl in 2003. In that game against the Panthers, he caught 10 passes on 13 targets for 143 yards and a touchdown. He also had the catch that set up Adam Vinatieri's game-winner that night, yet it was Brady who came away with the game's MVP award.
The next year saw Branch limited to nine regular-season games because of injury, but again he was a force come playoff time. He reeled in four passes for 116 yards and a score (to go along with 37 yards on the ground and a rushing touchdown) in New England's AFC title game victory in Pittsburgh. Two weeks later he lit up the Eagles for 133 yards on 11 catches and was named MVP.
Coming off a second consecutive Super Bowl, Branch went into 2005 and only built on his reputation as Brady's go-to option with 78 catches on 125 targets for 998 yards and five touchdowns — all career-highs to that point. The Patriots didn't get through the Divisional Round of the playoffs that year, but it wasn't because they were waiting on contributions from their top receiver. Branch had eight catches for 153 yards at Mile High in a 27-13 defeat.
Branch held out the next season and was eventually dealt to the Seahawks for a first-round pick, a transaction that came with it a tampering charge against the Jets. The Patriots flamed out in the AFC title game that year with a receiving corps that was in desperate need of some measure of dependability, and Branch caught 53 passes in the first of his four-plus year stay in Seattle.
He was reunited with the Patriots in 2010 — less than a week after the team jettisoned an unhappy Randy Moss — and immediately became a factor, catching nine passes for 98 yards in his first game back with Brady. Branch caught five touchdowns for the Patriots that season and caught five more in 2011, helping the Patriots back to the Super Bowl as a complementary piece to the tight end tandem that rolled through the NFL that year.
Branch's exceptional quickness — he ran a 3.76-second short-shuttle at the combine in 2002, one of the best ever recorded in Indy -— and football IQ helped make him an impossible cover, especially in his first go-round with the Patriots. Belichick was asked to compare Malcolm Mitchell to Branch, both of whom experienced success as rookie wideouts in New England, a few years ago.
“It’s hard to really compare anybody to Branch,” Belichick said at the time. “Branch had a rare quickness. I mean, what’d he run, like a 3.7 short-shuttle? You just don’t see that. Deion was very, very quick and very smart. I’m not saying there aren’t other smart receivers, but Deion was really a smart receiver and very, very quick. We’ve had quick guys like Troy [Brown], and Julian [Edelman], and Wes [Welker], guys like that. But it wasn’t Deion, they didn’t have Deion’s kind of quickness.
“They may have more size than Deion, they were probably a little better after the catch in terms of bulk, and strength, and breaking tackles and all that, but Deion’s short space quickness was pretty good. I don’t think we’ve had a guy with his kind of quickness. I don’t know that too many other teams have. They might have been quick but not with all of the other things, but when you put Deion together with his hands, his instincts — which were very good — his overall intelligence and his short space quickness. He was not the biggest guy, not the strongest guy but he was hard to cover. His quickness was tough to cover. It’d be hard to compare anybody to him because he was pretty unique with the level of quickness that he had.”
Amendola might not have had Branch's level of quickness, but he was certainly quick enough to be considered one of the most indispensable playoff performers in Patriots history.
Signed in 2013 when there was some uncertainty as to whether or not the Patriots would be able to retain Welker, Amendola — who came to New England with durability concerns — was hurt almost immediately. He played through injuries for the duration of that season to catch 54 passes for 633 yards and two scores. He played in every regular-season game in 2014 but was heavily managed, catching just 27 passes for 200 yards that year. He was healthy enough come playoff time to submit some of the biggest moments during that team's run, though. Amendola was on the receiving end of Edelman's double-pass touchdown in the Divisional Round against the Ravens, and he caught a fourth-quarter score against the Seahawks to help Brady complete that comeback for Lombardi No. 4.
In 2016, Amendola's numbers were down again in the regular season due in part to injury; he racked up 23 catches and 243 yards in 12 games. But he was good to go in the Super Bowl. He caught only two passes in his team's first two playoff games, but against the Falcons he was one of the lInchpins to the 28-3 comeback effort, snagging eight passes for 78 yards, a touchdown and a critical two-point conversion.
When Edelman went down with a torn ACL in the 2017 preseason, the team leaned on Amendola (just as they did when Edelman dealt with injuries in 2015). Amendola caught 61 passes for 659 yards in the regular season and was a monster in the playoffs, going for 112 yards against Tennessee, 84 yards and two scores against Jacksonville, and compiling 152 yards on eight catches in the Super Bowl loss to Philadelphia.
"Danny's a tremendous competitor, made some big plays for us," Belichick said following the conference championship that year. "I thought, as usual, he handled the punts great, and he had the last punt return that really set us up for the final touchdown.
"Danny's such a good football player. When you look up ‘good football player’ in the dictionary his picture is right there beside it. It doesn’t matter what it is. Fielding punts, third down, big play, red area, onside kick recovery — whatever we need him to do. He’s just a tremendous player, very instinctive, tough, great concentration. He had some big plays for us today."
Amendola finished with 230 catches, 2,383 yards and 12 touchdowns in 69 career regular-season games with the Patriots. That doesn't stack up with the numbers Branch produced in his regular-season career in New England: 328 catches, 4,297 yards and 24 touchdowns in 89 career regular-season games with the team.
But Amendola's postseason production — 57 catches for 709 yards, six touchdowns and a two-point conversion in 13 games — matches up pretty tightly with what Branch did in January and February numbers-wise. Branch had 56 catches for 852 yards and five total touchdowns in 14 playoff games with the Patriots.
Given the injuries he played through, his special-teams contributions, and what he got out of his 190-pound frame, Amendola has an argument as one of the franchise's toughest wideouts in recent memory as well as one of its most clutch. But for every big postseason game Amendola had, Branch has an answer. And there's that Super Bowl MVP trophy that'll help Branch's cause in any "Who ya got?" conversation. Both have a pair of rings that might not exist were it not for them. Both have more than their share of memorable playoff moments.
The numbers are the numbers, but how you remember those moments will more than likely inspire your choice in this debate. That seems to be how these things have gone over the last few weeks, which is exactly what has made them such entertaining pre-camp filler.
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