Before Deion Sanders, there was Cliff Branch.
Long before “Neon Deion” dazzled sporting No. 21, “Speed Kills” was the “OG” 21 lighting up the NFL.
“He said it verbally: “You’re not going to cover me,’” Ronnie Lott said of Branch during a feature that aired at halftime of the Raiders first preseason game on Aug. 12.
The NFL hall of fame safety wasn’t done. He kept dropping jewels.
“Art Monk, Lynn Swann, Steve Largent, John Stallworth, no one had what Cliff had,” Lott continued. “His resume is right there with some of the best. That is a fact.”
And that’s what makes Branch’s absence from the Pro Football Hall of Fame that much more heartbreaking. He’s been hall-eligible since 1991 and the closest he’s gotten was in 2004 and 2010 as a semifinalist.
The epitome of an Al Davis wide receiver, Branch was a defensive coordinator’s nightmare due to his speed and hands. As a Raider for all 14 of his NFL years (1972-1985) Branch was a big reason the Silver & Black won three Super Bowls. When he retired, he was 11th in receiving yards *(8,685) and 12th in touchdown catches (67).
Branch was a gamebreaker. And the opposition knew it.
“He changed the way the game was played as wide receiver,” said hall of fame cornerback Mel Blount, whose Steelers had to contend with Branch. “People started looking for speed and looking for guys like Cliff Branch.
“The stage never got too big for him,” Blount continued. “To be a hall of famer, you made contributions to the game and helped take the game to another level. They rise to the occasion and separate themselves from the pack.”
Like Blount, Lott was all too aware of Branch’s penchant to hit another gear.
“There’s guys that can play during the regular season and there are guys who can take it up and rise up to another level,” Lott began, “We’re not playing for the regular season, we’re playing for the diamonds. And he (Branch) understood, this is what we’re playing for.”
There’s plenty of criticism on Branch. He didn’t ever go across the middle to prove his toughness being a big one.
But why go over the middle when you can make defensive backs look astonishingly stupid by running by them for the long touchdown strike?
Hall of fame tight end Mike Ditka, one to never pull punches, has an answer for Branch naysayers.
“He’s a hall of famer — period,” Ditka said. “I don’t want to hear about all these things, this and that, he didn’t do this or didn’t do that, he’s a hall of famer.”
It takes one to know one. Branch’s peers unequivocally say he should be enshrined amongst the game’s best.
It insulting voters don’t feel the same.