Cliff Branch: The Case for the Hall of Fame

The NFL Hall of Fame continues to exclude Raiders’ great Cliff Branch. Football fans love discussing great players unfairly excluded from the NFL Hall of Fame and personally, I think the backlog of deserving players is so great that 15 could be added during each of the next two or three years but that’s a story for another day. Raiders fans gained bittersweet satisfaction last year when quarterback Ken Stabler received long overdue recognition but only after his death. Hoping that Cliff Branch avoids his former teammate’s fate, here’s the case for Branch and his own gold jacket.

Early Days

Branch grew up idolizing wide receivers Bob Hayes of Dallas, and Charlie Taylor and Bobby Mitchell of Washington. He also excelled in track and football as a boy living in Houston, Texas. The Raiders drafted him out of Colorado in the fourth round in 1972, a slightly built (5’11”, 170 lbs.) wide receiver with world-class speed. Branch set school and NCAA all-time records with eight total punt and kickoff return TDs (6 punts, 2 kickoffs). He was also an elite sprinter in track, setting an indoor record with 10.0 seconds in the 100-meter dash at the 1972 NCAA Outdoor Championships. His 4×400 and mile relay teams still hold school records.

Turning pro scuttled Cliff’s chances for the 1972 Olympics and while he didn’t get a lot of touches in the Buffaloes’ run-heavy offense during the two years he played there, when he did, he gained yards in bunches (18.5 yards per catch and 11.4 yards per rush on the ground) and scored touchdowns (11).

Having lost Warren Wells to legal problems by 1972, the Raiders sought a deep threat to complement the great Fred Biletnikoff. Branch wasn’t even the heir apparent for that role; Mike Siani as their first pick that year, and he started for the next two seasons while the raw Branch (Phil Villapiano joked that he couldn’t catch a cold” as a rookie) learned the finer points of his craft largely by copying Biletnikoff. When Siani got hurt early in 1974, Branch burst onto the spotlight, catching 60 passes for 1092 yards and 13 TDs. For the next decade, Branch ran by, and through the best defenses the NFL had to offer. As Adam Rank of NFL Media related, Al Davis always said that the player other teams feared the most was Cliff Branch.”

Five Reasons Raiders WR Cliff Branch Belongs in the Hall of Fame

#1 Comparative Statistics

Wide receivers face an odd conundrum with today’s Hall of Fame voters: players from the last 30 years have played in much more wide-open passing offenses than existed in the 1960s and 1970s, yet because of that many voters devalue guys with eye-popping statistics. Terrell Owens, Henry Ellard, Isaac Bruce, Torrey Holt, Jimmy Smith, and Hines Ward all have a legitimate case for induction, but their numbers seem to numb rather than awe voters. It took a long time for obvious Hall of Famers such as Art Monk, Tim Brown, Andre Reed, and Cris Carter to get in. At the same time, with today’s worship of advanced statistics, many people won’t judge someone a Hall of Famer without elite statistics.

This makes it even harder to evaluate players from run-oriented eras. In 1977, teams averaged 12.8 completions per game and 37.4 runs. Teams today throw 59% of the time. Branch’s Hall of Fame teammate Fred Biletnikoff caught an impressive 589 balls during his career (fourth all-time when he retired in 1978), yet he now ranks seventy-third all-time. After a two-year apprenticeship in which he caught a total of 22 passes, Branch had two otherworldly years in 1974, when he led the NFL with 13 touchdowns, 1092 receiving yards and 78 yards per game, and 1976, when he finished second with 1111 receiving yards and led the league with 79.4 per game and 12 TDs. He also had some pedestrian years due to injuries and quarterback problems, including two seasons in which he only scored one TD. Why induct Branch when Henry Ellard has far better numbers?

Branch tied Hall of Famer Paul Warfield in receiving yards and finished behind Warfield, Hayes, Jackson, Carmichael, and Morgan in TDs. (Morgan and Jackson have their own cases as unfair omissions from the Hall of Fame). He had the most All-Pro recognition; only Warfield, with eight, played in more Pro Bowls than Branch of this group. For a three-year period, 1974-76, Branch exceeded the yardage and TD totals of any receiver in the ’70s.

As many Raider fans note, Branch compares very favorably with Hall of Famer Lynn Swann, and he is a wash with Hall of Famer John Stallworth statistically.

As Elliott Harrison of NFL Media said, Branch was definitely a more consistent player than Lynn Swann, and he was definitely a scarier player to defensive backs than Lynn Swann.”

Only the Raiders, Chargers, Cardinals, Cowboys, Bengals, and Steelers made the deep ball a central part of their offense in the 1970s with Branch being the one player other teams always had to account for. He succeeded against such superior cornerbacks as Emmitt Thomas of Kansas City, Louis Wright and Billy Thompson of Denver, Ken Riley of Cincinnati, and Mel Blount of Pittsburgh, among others. He practiced every day against Hall of Famers Willie Brown and Mike Haynes.

In his last great year and at age 35, Branch averaged 17.8 yards per catch and tied the NFL record with a 99-yard TD catch from Jim Plunkett in a wild game against the Redskins, who they would meet and beat in the Super Bowl that year.

As Ray Didinger, Hall of Fame writer said, I think Cliff Branch was a game-changing kind of receiver. He didn’t catch an extremely high volume of passes, but for a team like the Raiders, where you needed a deep-ball threat, that’s exactly what he was.”

#2 Big in the Playoffs

Branch had the opportunity to play in a lot of playoff games for the time, 22 in all. Branch shined in the post-season; with 22, only he, Drew Pearson, and Warfield rank behind Jerry Rice’s record of 28 consecutive playoff games with a reception. His 1289 playoff yards still rank third all-time, behind Rice and Michael Irvin, and his 73 receptions rank ninth. He played in seven AFC Championship games and has three Super Bowl rings. Hall of Fame voters prize playoff production, and this is probably Branch’s strongest argument for induction.

In his first playoff start, the “Sea of Hands” game against Miami in 1974, Branch’s diving catch of an underthrown deep ball by Kenny Stabler in front of Henry Stuckey gave the Raiders the lead midway through the fourth quarter. He tracked the throw, sidestepped Stuckey, and caught the ball while tumbling to the ground, then had presence of mind to get right up and streak down the sideline. In the losing effort against Pittsburgh in the next week’s AFC championship, Branch caught 9 passes for 186 yards and a 38-yard TD against Hall of Famer Mel Blount. Steelers’ coach Chuck Noll benched Blount for much of the second half because he couldn’t contain Cliff. He made these plays against the two greatest defenses of the era. When Oakland lost to Pittsburgh in the 1975 AFC Championship game, a frigid day on which the sidelines were slick with ice, he caught a 37-yard bomb that put Oakland in position to win the game, but time ran out. He also had 113 yards receiving during the legendary “Ghost to the Post” overtime win against the Baltimore Colts in 1977.

Branch had his best season in 1976, when the Raiders went 13-1 and won their first Super Bowl over Minnesota. Stabler earned the NFL MVP award and Branch was his favorite target, catching 46 passes for 1111 yards and a remarkable 24.2 yards per reception. He caught 12 touchdowns, including an 88 yarder. Other players made the biggest plays in the playoffs and Super Bowl, but Branch caught memorable TDs during their next two Super Bowl wins, against Philadelphia in 1980s and Washington in 1983.

Against Philadelphia, Branch caught two touchdowns (tying a Super Bowl record), the first a 2-yard quick strike for the first score of the game, the latter a twisting catch at the goal line of a 29-yard pass that Branch snatched from Eagles’ cornerback Roynell Young, which put Oakland up 21-3. On the first Wild Card team to win a Super Bowl, Branch was one of several stars that day.

In 1983 and against the heavily favored Washington Redskins, Branch put on a clinic against cornerback Anthony Washington. He beat Washington and Hall of Famer Darrell Green for a 46-yard bomb to put Oakland in the red zone, then scored the second Raider TD on a 12-yard in. Washington gave Branch a big cushion, and Branch made a subtle move to the outside then a quick swerve inside that froze Washington. Plunkett hit him in the numbers as Branch went to his knees, yards away from his defender. He caught six balls for 94 yards that day.

As Hall of Fame teammate Art Shell: said, He was a money man. Postseason time came, he said, ‘It’s time to go to work.'”

#3 Style and Signature Plays

Elite players need more than statistics to join the pantheon of NFL greats. Many Hall of Fame voters believe that a Hall of Famer has to have a signature” play or game that defines their greatness. Lynn Swann’s diving catches in the Super Bowl against Dallas, Joe Namath carving up the Colts defense in Super Bowl III, Barry Sanders’ swivel-hipped escapes from an entire front seven, Gale Sayers skating through a defense or Jim Brown bowling over it have certainly helped their candidacy. Such a standard is highly subjective and unfair to players who were consistently great such as offensive and defensive linemen or an unstylish wide receiver like Art Monk who carried his team with big numbers for more than a decade.

Watch any highlight film of Cliff Branch and you will find big play after big play and an exciting style. The great ones have a distinctive way of playing: Stabler’s slow saunter to the huddle and precision strikes, Namath’s lightning throws, Brett Favre’s and Steve Young’s rollouts that led to touchdown throws, Jerry Rice’s graceful glide and Barry Sanders’ stop-and-start forays to paydirt. Branch was the small guy with impossibly fast feet, who would streak down a sideline or turn on a dime to cut inside. He was fun to watch, a guy you’d go to the stadium to see what he would do that day. Like Sayers or Sanders, he had rare acceleration and could score from anywhere on the field. Speed Kills #21″ signs sprouted in the end zones at Oakland-Alameda County Stadium in Branch’s heyday.

Branch did make memorable catches. His 72-yard TD in the “Sea of Hands” game came at a vital time and was a highlight of one of the great games in NFL history. He caught a long ball for a TD that bounced off the Bears’ Virgil Livers (then later just blew by him for a long TD bomb) and snatched a TD just off the shoulder of the Broncos’ Billy Thompson. He wore out even great secondaries such as Pittsburgh’s, Miami’s, and Denver’s. In the epic Raider comeback on a Monday night game in New Orleans on December 3, 1979, the greatest comeback in MNF history, Oakland stormed back from a 35-14 deficit with 6:24 left in the third quarter. Branch’s 66-yard catch and run down the left sideline tied the game, and he then scored the game winner on a short pass from Jim Plunkett. Branch also figured in two important milestones: he caught George Blanda’s final TD pass, against Dallas, in 1974—a man Branch watched as a boy during Blanda’s AFL days–and an NFL record-tying 99-yard TD from Plunkett against Washington in 1983—when Branch was 35 years old. Like Willie Gault, he never lost his speed with age.

#4 More Than a Speed Merchant

Though a revolutionary deep threat, Branch could work the entire field. He wasn’t just a burner; he often caught short passes, then accelerated past a host of defenders for a long TD, or made a circus catch over a defensive back covering him closely. He could catch a ball in traffic and wend his way through a defense. He had great concentration and rare ability to track and adjust to a deep ball. His Super Bowl TDs were atypical in that they weren’t the long bombs we associate with Branch, but they showed how easily he could use subtle moves to break down a defensive back to get open.

At a time when defensive backs could manhandle receivers, the wiry Branch got open consistently, and knew how to exploit a cushion. He also was feisty and would get in the face of a defender who tried to intimidate him. Yes, he was fast the way few other players are fast, but he could also snatch the ball from the air while being draped by a defender. He could turn any cornerback’s hips, make him miss and get to top speed in two or three steps the way Barry Sanders could. With his great route running and quick feet, Amari Cooper reminds me of Branch in this regard. (Apparently, Branch also saw a lot of himself in Cooper, and begged Mark Davis to draft him.)

Branch worked hard to enhance his natural gifts and be a total receiver. He once told an interviewer, you can control your speed by just concentrating real hard on running your routes, because defensive backs will fear you because of your great speed, but I think the reason I was able to control my speed is because I learned to run precision routes.”

Wide receivers are often stereotyped as prima donnas, but Cliff was always the ultimate team player. “On a team, everybody needs to be on the same page,” Branch said. “Playing on a team is more gratifying than an individual sport because it’s about a group of guys trying to achieve the same goal. You have to be unselfish.”

#4 What Observers Said

A cheerful and friendly soul by all accounts, Cliff had the supreme self-confidence of a rare athlete. Despite his unselfishness, Cliff wanted the ball and wasn’t shy about asking for it. As his first NFL coach, John Madden, said, He believed he could beat anyone deep on any play. Sometimes he would say it while they were playing the National Anthem. He didn’t even know who was covering him; he just knew he could beat him.” Kenny Stabler echoed that, saying, He started yelling for the ball before he got his jock on.”

Damon Amendolara of CBS Sports Network said, Cliff Branch was the deep threat before there were deep threats. In an era where you didn’t through deep, and you didn’t try to stretch the defense, the Raiders did.”

Nick Canepa, writer for the San Diego Herald-Tribune, who saw a lot of Branch could not talk to a cornerback in the NFL who did not think Cliff Branch was the best receiver in the league. ”

The great Mel Blount once said Branch was the only receiver he didn’t like to guard. According to Branch, the Steelers were more of a zone defensive team. If Mel had to cover me one-on-one I would usually have the advantage; in other words, he would have to play bump and run to even things out. Blount told [Mike] Haynes that the two toughest receivers he had to cover were the San Diego Chargers’ Charlie Joiner and Cliff Branch. He even said that I belong in the Hall of Fame.”

Adam Rank of NFL Media said, Al Davis always talked about that the player other teams feared the most was Cliff Branch.” Davis himself said, Cliff Branch, definitely, he should be in that Hall of Fame without any question. He’ll get his turn.”

Long-time Raiders executive Al LoCasale once said, Cliff was a classic example of Al Davis’ definition of a great player: ‘Great players are guys who make big plays in big games.’ Cliff is a vivacious, effervescent kind of guy who just lit up. He laughed and loved it, got excited about it. He’d prance around. When the game was on the line, that’s when he’d make the big plays.”

Final Thoughts

For many analysts, Branch is a marginal Hall of Fame candidate. He has made the top-25 twice, but that’s as far as he’s gotten. His statistics were excellent but not great enough, too many average statistical years. There are plenty of wide receivers who deserve inclusion, and many exceed Branch’s numbers. As with Joe Namath and Ken Stabler, however, statistics don’t tell the whole story. Those who played against him identified him as the guy they worried about most and one of the greatest they ever faced, which carries a lot of weight. Branch played his best in big games for a team that won three Super Bowls and made the playoffs nearly every year of his career. He was a winner and a thrill ride for fans. It’s time to redress an injustice.

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