Cliff Branch once again shut down by Hall-of-Fame voters
One can certainly understand the frustration and anger felt by Drew Pearson Wednesday when he learned he had once again been denied his well-earned spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But if he were alive today, Cliff Branch would have had reason to feel worse.
Yes, Pearson is now the only first-team 1970s' all-decade offensive player not in the Hall after its blue ribbon Centennial committee bypassed both him and Branch as part of the 10-man senior class in favor of Harold Carmichael and 1950s' standout Mac Speedie, the two pure receivers who were inducted.
One can understand Pearson muttering “they broke my heart’’ because surely they did. But the truth is Branch was more productive than both of the first team all-decade players of that era and at least one of the second-team selections.
That’s not opinion. That’s what the numbers say.
Pearson and Lynn Swann were named to the first team that decade, with Carmichael and Paul Warfield on the second team. Over that decade Swann scored 39 touchdowns. Pearson scored 31. Warfield had 41. Cliff Branch scored 50. Carmichael had 57.
During that time Swann amassed 3,982 receiving yards. Pearson had 5,713. Warfield had 4,229. Playing in only six of those 10 years, Branch produced 5,520 yards. Carmichael had 6,030.
Now three of the four on that team – Swann, Warfield and Carmichael - are enshrined while Pearson and Branch languish in the senior pool, which is known to Senior Committee members (which includes myself) as “the great abyss.’’ You may emerge, but the odds are more likely you will be reincarnated before you’re resurrected from pro football’s great hole.
Branch played more than half his career in the 1970s, which was statistically the worst passing era of the last 60 years. Teams averaged 179 passing yards a game in the 1960s, 204 yards in the ‘80s, 205 in the 1990s, 209 in the 2000s and 234 yards in the recently concluded 2010 decade. In the 1970s, teams threw on average for only 156 yards per game. In that decade Branch twice went for over 1,000 yards receiving.
In 1974, the average NFL team averaged 153.2 passing yards per game. Branch alone averaged 78 a game. In 1976, teams averaged 152 passing yards. Branch averaged 79.4 himself. In both seasons Branch averaged per game over 50 percent of the receiving production per game of the average NFL TEAM of that time.
He led the league in receiving yards (1,092) in 1974 and touchdowns in 1976 (12), and in the latter season piled up 1,111 yards, averaging a stunning 24.2 yards per reception and 79.4 receiving yards per game.
More significantly, when compared with the four receivers named on the 1970s' all-decade team his production exceeds two of them in every statistical area - yards, receptions and touchdowns. That is not to argue Warfield and Swann don’t belong in the Hall, but if they are in … and now Carmichael is as well … how is Branch, who was more feared than any of them, not?
To be fair to the Centennial committee, all 20 of the finalists were deserving of enshrinement, and they could only pick 10. No one in Denver can believe Randy Gradishar wasn’t enshrined. In Green Bay they’re shocked that Laverne Dilwig was again denied. In Philadelphia they wonder how a guy like Al Wisert can be voted on to some sort of All-Pro team in eight of his nine NFL seasons and not have a bust in Canton.
So head scratching isn’t the sole purview of Branch supporters.
That is the beauty and the curse of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Nearly 30,000 players have worn an NFL uniform. Of those, only 326, or slightly more than one per cent, have a bust in Canton. When you’re that selective, hearts will be broken.
Among those Wednesday were Drew Pearson’s and all those who hoped that Cliff Branch, who sadly passed away last summer, might finally be inducted into the most exclusive club in sports. For anyone who ever watched Branch terrorize an NFL secondary, making the biggest plays in the Raiders’ biggest games, it is a mystery as unfathomable as the Bermuda Triangle.
“There’s a lot of guys in the Hall of Fame, including myself, and the way Cliff played overshadowed a lot of us,’’ says his old teammate, Hall-of-Fame receiver Fred Biletnikoff.
Perhaps that’s why Branch has the fourth most first-team All-Pro selections among the Hall’s 34 receivers?
Branch was named first-team All-Pro three straight times, went to four consecutive Pro Bowls and started on three Super Bowl winning teams. On each of those championship teams he was a game-changing force who was at his best when the stakes were the highest.
Yes, he averaged 17.3 yards per catch during his career, but he averaged 17.7 yards per catch in the post-season making 73 playoff receptions, good for 1,289 yards and five touchdowns. In three Super Bowls, Branch piled up 14 catches, 181 receiving yards and three of those five scores.
Bigger the game, the bigger he played.
When Branch retired he held NFL career playoff records for receptions and receiving yards. Hall of Famers become Hall of Famers by the plays they make in the biggest moments. Cliff Branch was that kind of player.
In the 1974 playoffs Branch had 12 catches and averaged 22.5 yards a reception. In 1975 he had seven receptions for 145 yards, averaging 20.7. In 1977 Branch made nine playoff catches good for 172 yards, an average of 19.1 per catch. In 1980, he had 11 for 201, an average of 18.3. In 1982 he had 10 for 203, averaging over 20 yards per catch in the playoffs for the third time in his career (20.3 yards per catch). Even in 1983, at the age of 35, he managed to make 14 playoff catches for 192 yards.
“That’s what great players are all about,’’ Hall-of-Famer Mel Blount said. “They rise to the occasion, and they separate themselves from the pack.’’
On the football field Cliff Branch certainly did that. It’s a shame the Hall’s voters once again didn’t do it at the ballot box.