Countdown to Canton: Cliff Branch was a playmaker and a game breaker
Hall-of-Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott was fearless, with one exception. The exception was Cliff Branch.
“When you were in front of him, there was fear there,’’ Lott once said of facing Branch, one of 20 Hall of Fame senior Centennial Class finalists vying for 10 new busts in Canton. “The guy was just a nightmare to cover. No one had what Cliff had. He changed the dimensions of your defense.’’
Branch was a world-class sprinter who posted NCAA-record times in the 100-and-200-meter dashes while at Colorado, but he was not a sprinter playing football. Cliff Branch was a football player terrorizing defenses with his speed for 14 years, finishing his NFL career with 501 catches, good for 8,685 yards, 67 touchdowns and a 17.3 yards-per-catch average.
He led the league in receiving yards (1,092) in 1974 and touchdowns in 1976 (12), and in the latter season, Branch piled up 1,111 yards while averaging a stunning 24.2 yards per reception and 79.4 receiving yards per game. As with all things, such numbers need to be put into context to reveal how far ahead of his time Cliff Branch was.
Branch played more than half his career in the 1970s. That was statistically the worst passing era of the last 60 years. How do we know this? Because teams averaged 179 passing yards a game in the 1960s, 204 yards in the ‘80s, 205 yards in the 1990s, 209 in the 2000s and 234 in the recently concluded decade of the 2010s. In the 1970s, a time when both receivers and quarterbacks were under constant assault before schemes and rule changes altered the game, teams passed on average for only 156 yards per game. In that decade Branch twice went over 1,000 yards receiving.
In 1974, NFL teams averaged 153.2 passing yards per game. Branch averaged 78 a game. In 1976, teams averaged 152 passing yards per game. Branch averaged 79.4. So in both seasons Cliff Branch averaged per game more than 50 percent of the receiving production of the average NFL TEAM of that time.
Can anyone say Hall of Famer?
Had Branch not played in a run-heavy offense alongside Hall-of-Fame receivers Fred Biletnikoff and Dave Casper he likely would have piled up even more personal production, but that was another significant part of his value. Cliff Branch not only made plays, his mere presence allowed teammates to make plays too.
“They call it creating space,’’ Lott said.
But one of the Raiders’ quarterbacks who often threw to Branch best explained Branch’s impact on the Raiders’ offense.
“He really opened the field just being Cliff Branch,’’ Jim Plunkett said of Branch. “That gave me other opportunities when they double covered Cliff.’’
And just why would teams do that when facing Hall-of-Famers Casper and Biletnikoff? Why devote so much attention to a guy who has been denied entrance to the Hall of Fame for nearly four decades?
“You had to game plan for number 21 because if you didn’t you were going to go home a loser,’’ recalls Hall-of-Fame cornerback Mel Blount. “He changed the game in the way it was played as a wide receiver. People started going out looking for speed. Looking for a guy like Cliff Branch.’’
Good luck trying to find one, even among Hall of Famers.
“There’s a lot of guys in the Hall of Fame, including myself, and the way Cliff played overshadowed a lot of us,’’ said 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, 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 not because they pile up numbers in meaningless moments. They become Hall of Famers by the plays they make in the biggest moments, regardless of the efforts by other stars like Lott or Blount to stop them. The facts and the numbers prove Branch was that kind of player.
“There are guys who can play in the regular season and guys who understand how to rise up to another level,’’ Lott said of Branch. “We’re playing for the diamonds (rings). Cliff understood that’s what we’re playing for.’’
In the 1974 playoffs Branch had 12 catches and averaged 22.5 yards a reception. In 1975 he had seven 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 same season by the way, he also had a 99-yard regular-season touchdown reception against the Washington Redskins that tied the all-time record).
Added Blount, when asked about Branch’s post-season performances, “That’s what great players are all about. They rise to the occasion and they separate themselves from the pack.’’
One way Branch did that was with pure speed, of which Raiders’ owner Al Davis once said, “With him it’s not running, it’s flying.’’ That speed, combined with fearlessness and a relentless drive to get behind opposing defenses, forced even the best defenders to respect him in unusual ways.
“I always gave him 13 yards of cushion and that wasn’t enough,’’ recalled Hall-of-Fame safety Kenny Easley, who faced Branch many times in the years they opposed each other in the AFC West.
Some 35 years after retiring, Branch still ranks third all-time among Raider receivers, trailing only Hall-of-Famers Biletnikoff and Tim Brown in receiving yards and trails Biletnikoff by only 289 yards despite having made 88 fewer catches.
Biletnikoff was one of the greatest possession receivers of all-time and has been honored for it. Branch was one of the greatest home-run hitters, a reputation that opened the under belly of opposing defenses for Biletnikoff. Yet, until now, Branch has never been a Hall-of-Fame finalist.
He seems to be one of those players that Hall-of-Fame voters talk so often of having fallen through the cracks. But don’t take one voter's opinion on that. Listen to Da Coach of Da Bears.
“I don’t want to hear he didn’t do this or that,’’ growled Mike Ditka when Cliff Branch’s name is brought up as a future Hall of Famer. “He’s a Hall of Famer. Period!’’
Ronnie Lott. Kenny Easley. Mel Blount. Michael Haynes all faced him. All admit feeling fear when they did. As Haynes put it, “Cliff, no question, had a Hall-of-Fame career.’’
Biletnikoff, Dave Casper, John Madden, Ron Wolf and Plunkett all agree with Haynes, but dismiss them if you will because they were his teammates, coach and GM of the team that drafted him. But Mike Ditka? Dismiss Da coach at your peril.
But let’s leave the final word on Cliff Branch’s resume to one more Hall of Famer, a talent evaluator many members of this committee voted for induction last season. Let’s ask what Dallas Cowboys’ personnel man extraordinaire Gil Brandt thinks of Cliff Branch.
“He deserves to be in,’’ Brandt says. “Stop right there.’’