The year is 2018 and Cliff Branch still isn’t in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and I just can’t figure out why. I’ve looked over the records, I’ve checked the stats, I’ve watched the film, and all I’ve seen is an incredible talent. An incredible talent that knew two things, how to get open deep and how to win championships. Why isn’t Cliff Branch in the Hall of Fame? I looked into it and here’s what I found.
Cliff Branch vs. The Pro Football Hall of Fame
In his career, Cliff Branch caught 501 catches for 8,685 yards, and 67 touchdowns. Now, while those numbers are good, they don’t hold up very well in 2018. Just for perspective, the NFL’s all-time leading receiver, Jerry Rice, caught 1,549 passes for 22,895 yards, and 197 touchdowns.
But Jerry Rice also retired in 2004, when passing had taken over the NFL. And very few receivers ever played as long or as well as Jerry Rice did. When Branch retired in 1985, he was 17th all-time in receptions, 12th all-time in receiving yards, and 13th all-time in touchdowns. Here in 2018, the players in those spots are James Lofton, Don Maynard, and Steve Smith. The first two are already in the Hall of Fame, and the third will be when he becomes eligible.
His numbers aren’t wild, but when you stop and look at it, they’re better than many guys who are already enshrined in Canton. He has more career touchdowns (67) than John Stallworth (63), Bobby Mitchell (65), Charlie Joiner (65), Michael Irvin (65), and Lynn Swann (51, and don’t worry, we’ll get back to him). He also has more career yards (8,685) than Swann (5,662 we’ll get back to him), “Bullet” Bob Hayes (7,414), Tommy McDonald (8,410), and Paul Warfield (8,565).
His numbers aren’t amazing, but they’re certainly good enough to get him into the Hall. So what is it? Was his impact not felt enough on the team or around the league?
For the longest time, the Raiders were known as “that team that drafts the fast guy” no matter what. Darren McFadden, Denarius Moore, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Jacoby Ford, and Michael Huff are examples of players that Al Davis drafted in the 00’s based on the philosophy that speed kills. Davis believed that if his players were physically superior to their players, they would beat just about anybody. And considering how the first quarter century as the big boss in Oakland went, it’s easy to see why.
When Al Davis was growing up in New York, he loved to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees. Many of the philosophies that shaped his Raiders were formed by these teams. He liked how big and athletic the Yankees were and was captivated by how fast the Dodgers were.
That’s why when he was an assistant coach for the San Diego Chargers, he helped acquire and develop a young receiver named Lance Alworth. Alworth, one of the most explosive players in the early days of the NFL, was famous for his legendary speed. Alworth once ran a 100 yard dash in 9.6 seconds, and few professional athletes in the 60’s could hang with him.
When Al Davis took over the Raiders, he knew he needed a Lance Alworth. He needed someone that could stretch the field and leave defenders in the dust. He moved heaven and hell to get Art Powell, and while he played well, he didn’t quite satisfy Davis’ need for speed.
Enter Cliff Branch. Branch ran the 100 meter dash in exactly ten seconds, and was exactly the player Al Davis was looking for. In his time with the Raiders, Branch averaged 17.3 yards per reception. That means an average catch for Branch was seventeen yards. Legendary deep threat Randy Moss? Only 15.6 yards an attempt.
Branch was an integral part of all three Super Bowl teams and was the heart of the Raiders offense for 14 years. Al Davis spent the rest of his life trying to find the next Cliff Branch, and he never really did.
Why is Lynn Swann in but Cliff Branch isn’t? Branch is objectively better across the board. He had more 1,000 yard seasons (two is a bigger number than zero, after all), yards, touchdowns, Pro Bowl appearances (All four seasons from 1974-1977 vs. three seasons in 1975, 1977, and 1978), and All-Pro seasons (three straight seasons from 1974-1976 vs. just one year, in 1978). And sure, Swann was part of four Super Bowl teams, but Branch was a part of three.
Is Swann really in the Hall of Fame because he made one pretty catch one time and participated in one more Super Bowl than Branch? Or is the truth more nefarious? After all, there’s no shortage of weird history between the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Raiders.
Al Davis vs. The World
If you were to list the greatest Raiders of all time, you’d be surprised by how many either aren’t in the Pro Football Hall of Fame or had to wait a long time to be enshrined. Ken Stabler suspiciously didn’t get in until immediately after he passed away, and Tim Brown, who retired third all-time in receptions, as well as second all-time in receiving yards and touchdowns, didn’t get into Canton until 2015.
The careers of Ken Stabler and Joe Namath are forever linked as the best quarterbacks to come out of Alabama. Both players balled out for the majority of the 70’s, each winning a Super Bowl, and both players had great careers despite throwing more interceptions than touchdowns. Here are their career statlines.
Joe Namath- 27,663 yards, 173 touchdowns, 220 interceptions.
Ken Stabler- 27,938 yards, 194 touchdowns, 222 interceptions.
Considering how similar the two careers were, you’d think they’d both get into the Hall of Fame at the same time, right? Well, Namath retired in 1978, and was inducted in 1985. That was a seven year gap. Stabler retired in 1985, and was inducted posthumously in 2016, 31 seasons later.
Meanwhile, Jim Plunkett, who admittedly had mediocre stats, is the only eligible quarterback in NFL history to win multiple Super Bowls as a starter and not get into the Hall of Fame.
Cliff Branch aside, it’s ridiculous that Tim Brown had to wait as long as he did. It’s crazy that Brown had to wait a decide while Randy Moss, who ended his career top three in yards and touchdowns as well, but was only 15th in receptions, got into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. If you found yourself asking, “wasn’t Randy Moss a Raider” at any point, then go ahead and give this a click.
Compared to how fast Marvin Harrison and Terrell Owens got in, there’s not really an argument for why it took Brown so long. They said he didn’t have the numbers, but he was top five in basically everything. They said he “played in a passing era” but Marvin Harrison got in with only a small wait.
What the Hayes?
Why isn’t Lester Hayes in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? He had one of the best seasons in NFL history for a corner, and beyond that, he was always a solid corner. People want to talk about the Stickum, but Jerry Rice also used Stickum, and nobody says anything about how it helped his career or uses it to discredit his legacy.
Whether or not there is or isn’t an anti-Raider bias, this much is true. Cliff Branch belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He’s 70 years old and helped reinvent the way people play the game. Al Davis’ vertical attack is legendary, and nobody on any Raider team epitomized “speed kills” quite like Mr. Branch.