Cliff Branch blew through NFL before Internet age on way to Pro Football Hall of Fame

Mike Ditka presented Cliff Branch's case for Canton the way only Iron Mike could.

The old Bear sounded ready to jump through the camera and sock you in the nose if you questioned his assertion:

"Cliff Branch is a Hall of Famer. Period."

Branch wasn't in, though, from the time he became eligible in 1991 until now. He didn't live to walk with the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2022. He died in 2019, at age 71. A former Raiders teammate, Marcus Allen, regards the marathon wait as "almost criminal."

Branch's stats in 14 years as a Raiders wide receiver (1972-85) can't touch the pinball numbers of now.

But his case is letters more than numbers, "W" as in wins, "P" as in playoffs, "B" as in blur.

Raiders wide receiver Cliff Branch, right, catches a pass from quarterback Jim Plunkett for a 64-yard gain during the first quarter of a playoff win over the Cleveland Browns in Los Angeles, Jan. 8, 1983. (AP Photo, File)
Raiders wide receiver Cliff Branch, right, catches a pass from quarterback Jim Plunkett for a 64-yard gain during the first quarter of a playoff win over the Cleveland Browns in Los Angeles, Jan. 8, 1983. (AP Photo, File)

Exhibit A, perhaps, was the year Mr. Branch took his case to Washington.

In the 1983 regular season, at age 35, his 99-yard touchdown catch wasn't enough to prevent Joe Gibbs' powerhouse from a 37-35 win, but the teams met again in Super Bowl XVIII. There, Branch opened a early drive with a 50-yard catch from Jim Plunkett. On the next play, Allen ran for 3 yards. On the next, Branch scored on a 12-yard pass.

That unraveled Washington's defense and led to a blowout win. But his prime unfolded so long ago.

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If you were 10 years old when he led the NFL in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns, 1974, you are pushing 60 now.

Offenses operated differently then. The top three players in receiving yards in '74 were Branch with 1,092, the Cowboys' Drew Pearson with 1,087 and the Chargers' Gary Garrison with 785.

In 2021, when Cooper Kupp led the league with 1,947 receiving yards, 44 receivers amassed at least 800 yards.

Branch's road to Canton went through the Seniors Committee. His scouting report came back to life. Good routes, field sense, hands, savvy finish, fierce competitor, lethal when mixed with his fabulous feet.

Raiders receiver Cliff Branch resists the tackle of Washington defensive back Anthony Washington during Super Bowl XVIII at Tampa Stadium, Jan. 22, 1984. The Raiders won 38-9.
Raiders receiver Cliff Branch resists the tackle of Washington defensive back Anthony Washington during Super Bowl XVIII at Tampa Stadium, Jan. 22, 1984. The Raiders won 38-9.

Plus, he was Mr. January, a key man on Raiders teams that won three Super Bowls within eight seasons.

It worked against him that the Hall of Fame is crowded with Raiders.

Also, the backlog of wide receivers never goes away, even though 12 wideouts (now counting Branch) have been elected to the Hall in the last 13 years. Modern-era finalists Torry Holt, Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne — subject to a separate vote — didn't make the Class of '22.

The disparity between receiving stats in Branch's era vs. nowadays is striking. Wayne ranks 10th all-time with 14,345 receiving yards, Johnson is 11th at 14,185, and Holt is 16th at 13,382. Branch is 82nd at 8,685, in a cluster with two Hall of Famers from his era, John Stallworth (8,723) and Paul Warfield (8,565).

Steelers defensive back Donnie Shell (31) tackles Raiders receiver Cliff Branch (21) during the AFC championship game at Oakland Alameda Coliseum, Dec. 29, 1974. Pittsburgh defeated Oakland 24-13. (Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)
Steelers defensive back Donnie Shell (31) tackles Raiders receiver Cliff Branch (21) during the AFC championship game at Oakland Alameda Coliseum, Dec. 29, 1974. Pittsburgh defeated Oakland 24-13. (Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports)

Branch's last playing season, 1985, was Jerry Rice's first. Rice became the gold standard in terms of stats, eyeball test and winning.

Of the 12 wideouts enshrined in the last 13 years, starting with Rice in 2010, the order in regular-season receiving yards is:

Rice 22,895, Terrell Owens 15,934, Randy Moss 15,292, Isaac Bruce 15,208, Tim Brown 14,934, Marvin Harrison 14,580, Cris Carter 13,899, Andre Reed 13,198, Calvin Johnson 11,619, Harold Carmichael 8,985, Branch 8,685 and Mac Speedie 5,602.

The first nine played in the 2000s. Carmichael and Branch both were in their primes in the 1970s. Speedie's career began with the 1946 Cleveland Browns.

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It's a different story for Branch in postseason receiving yards. Among the 12 recent Hall of Famers in this discussion, Rice is No. 1 with 2,245 yards. Branch is next at 1,289, followed by Reed at 1,229, Harrison at 883 and Carter at 870.

Playoffs?

Branch had a 15-7 postseason record. Rice's was 17-12. Brown's was 11-10. It tapers off from there. Carter's was 4-10. Johnson's was 0-2.

Reed was 0-4 in Super Bowls. Rice was 3-1. Branch was 3-0. Among those not yet in the Hall, Wayne's postseason record, 11-10, is noteworthy.

A Raiders campaign video fleshed out Branch's case for Canton.

"There's a lot of people in the Hall of Fame, including myself, who were overshadowed by the way Cliff played." — Fred Biletnikoff, a wideout who was Branch's teammate for seven years.

Oakland Raiders receiver Cliff Branch (21) congratulates Fred Biletnikoff (25) after their 32-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI at the Rose Bowl, in Pasadena, Jan. 9, 1977.
Oakland Raiders receiver Cliff Branch (21) congratulates Fred Biletnikoff (25) after their 32-14 win over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI at the Rose Bowl, in Pasadena, Jan. 9, 1977.

"There was fear when you played in front of Cliff. There are guys who can play in the regular season and there are guys who understand how to rise up at the next level." — Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott

"I gave him 13 yards of cushion, and even that wasn't enough." — Hall of Fame defensive back Kenny Easley.

Steelers Hall of Fame Mel Blount felt Easley's pain, saying, "Cliff embarrassed me in one game ... got me benched."

The Raiders faced Pittsburgh in the postseason in Branch's first five pro seasons.

Branch had stats enough to spread across the Bay Bridge in the 1974 AFC finals in Oakland: Nine catches, 186 yards. His early TD on a bomb from Ken Stabler provided a 10-3 lead. The Steelers rallied and led just 17-13 in the late going. The Raiders couldn't stop Franco Harris on a do-or-die series and lost 24-13.

Branch had the last laugh in a sixth Raiders-Steelers playoff game, in 1983. He caught six passes in a 38-10 win, driving Blount to retirement. Branch, then 35, went on to catch six balls in the 38-9 Super Bowl win over Washington.

Marcus Allen admired Branch long before they spent four years together as teammates.

“Cliff changed the game," Allen said this year. "Changed coverages. Changed the way defense is played. Opened up things for everybody else.

"Cliff changed the game like Bob Hayes changed the game. Without Cliff Branch, there’s no Freddy Biletnikoff. There’s no Marcus. There’s no Todd Christensen. You know what I mean?”

Oakland Raiders wide receiver Cliff Branch (21) embraces quarterback Jim Plunkett (16) as the Raiders lined up for a team picture before a Super Bowl workout in the Superdome in New Orleans, Jan. 21, 1981. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
Oakland Raiders wide receiver Cliff Branch (21) embraces quarterback Jim Plunkett (16) as the Raiders lined up for a team picture before a Super Bowl workout in the Superdome in New Orleans, Jan. 21, 1981. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)

Branch drew double coverage into his latter days. Christensen had a few monster seasons as a tight end enjoying single coverage. In a 1982 playoff game, Browns defensive coordinator Marty Schottenheimer got burned by both in a 27-10 Raiders win. Branch made five catches for 121 yards and a touchdown. Christiansen caught six balls for 93 yards. The Raiders won 27-10.

Hayes — "Bullet Bob" — spent his last years as a Cowboy when Branch was on his way up with the Raiders.

Hayes vs. Branch would have been a track meet dream. In the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Hayes won a gold medal in the 100-meter dash in a world-record 10.06 seconds. In the 100-meter semifinals at the 1971 NCAA Championships, Branch set an NCAA record with a 10.0.

Hayes (6-foot, 185 pounds) was bigger than Branch (5-11, 175). Branch probably was a better football player.

Branch played more regular-season games than Hayes, 183-132, and led 8,685-7,414 in receiving yards. Hayes had more touchdowns, 71-67, and a better per-catch average, 20.0-17.3.

Dallas went 8-7 in the postseason with Hayes, who caught 31 passes for 492 yards and two TDs in those games. The Raiders went 15-7 with Branch, who caught 73 passes for 1,289 yards and five TDs.

Both Hayes and Branch are advertisements for employing an uber-burner wideout.

The Cowboys' regular-season records with Hayes were 7-7, 10-3-1, 9-5, 12-2, 11-2-1, 10-4, 11-3, 10-4, 10-4, 8-6 and 10-4. The Raiders' records with Branch were 10-3-1, 9-4-1, 12-2, 11-3, 13-1, 11-3, 9-7, 9-7, 11-5, 7-9, 8-1 (strike-shortened season), 12-4, 11-5 and 12-4.

Branch was a backup under head coach John Madden in 1972 and '73, learning the ropes under position coach Tom Flores. Branch then delivered first-team All-Pro seasons in 1974, '75 and '76.

Madden was his head coach for seven years, and then Flores for the remaining seven.

"I watched him grow up, watched him make big plays, and just watched him grow as a person," Flores told raiders.com this year. "I was so proud of him and what he became.

"I loved him. My kids loved him. I hope our busts are close by, so we can talk."

A Branch interview with Raiders Insider in 2017 is haunting. An excerpt:

"Coach Madden told me that it's going to happen. He said, 'When they call your name for the Hall of Fame, make sure you're here to reap all the benefits.'

"I told him, 'I am not dying until I get to the Hall of Fame. Once I get the call, I could die the next day, but ..."

Branch died on Aug. 1, 2019. He was announced as a Hall of Famer on Feb. 10, 2022.

His day in Canton is tinged in eeriness.

Ken Stabler, the Raiders' quarterback when Branch was ascending, died in 2015 — a year before his enshrinement into the Hall. Madden died shortly after last Christmas. Daryle Lamonica, Branch's first quarterback with the Raiders, died in April.

Owner Al Davis' campaign for Branch to make the Hall of Fame preceded his death in 2011.

Davis' Raiders marched to their own drumbeat. Abnormal for everyone else was business as usual to them.

There was the time Al and his son Mark feuded over Branch's contract. Al drew a line. Mark insisted Branch get more. Mark won. Al didn't speak to him for a while.

Now Mark Davis runs his father's Raiders. In mourning Branch's passing, he said, "Cliff Branch was my best friend."

If you don't think Branch belongs in the Hall of Fame, count Mike Ditka as an enemy.

Reach Steve at steve.doerschuk@cantonrep.com

On Twitter: @sdoerschukREP

This article originally appeared on The Repository: Cliff Branch ends long Pro Football Hall of Fame wait