Cliff Branch was the epitome of what Al Davis coveted in a receiver during his decades running the Raiders.
Branch arrived in Oakland with the speed needed to fuel the Raiders’ vertical attack and once he learned to harness that speed and develop reliable hands, there was no stopping Branch.
Branch became one of the biggest deep-seated threats of his era, with some of his biggest performances hitting the game’s biggest stages to earn a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.
“He changed the game,” said Hall of Fame coach Tom Flores, who was wide receivers coach for the Raiders when Branch arrived and was their head coach for seven seasons.
“He had a single speed and multiple gears with his speed. I had to guide him on how to slow down. This sounds ridiculous, but he was trying to do the routes I was teaching at simulated speed and couldn’t. He was stumbling and awkward, so I taught him to glide. He could slide faster than most people could run. So when you need it, turn it on.”
Branch came to Oakland as a fourth-round pick in 1972 after receiving just 36 passes in his final two years of college in Colorado. But Branch was also a star sprinter who set the NCAA championship record in the 100 meters just before joining the Raiders.
That speed is what Davis wanted to unite with future Hall of Famers Fred Biletnikoff and Dave Casper as the pass takers for Ken Stabler. But it took until its third season for Branch to come out.
Flores said he was immediately impressed by Branch’s toughness in midfield and ability to learn offense, but the only problem that kept him off the field early on was his hands, as frequent takedowns led to boos from home fans.
“The first year he was impressive and when he was open he was open because he was so fast but then he dropped the ball,” Flores said. “But then, in his third year, that’s when he really started to shine. That was the whole thing with Al, speed and fear and big guys. And he was a guy who played a lot.”
Branch made the first of his three consecutive All-Pro teams in his first season as a starter in 1974 and has never looked back. He scored 67 touchdowns in the air, leading the NFL in TD receptions in 1974 with 13 and in 1976 with 12. Branch also had 1,092 receiving yards in 1974.
He was a postseason force with 1,289 receiving yards. The Raiders won the Super Bowls after the 1976, 1980 and 1983 seasons – the last in Los Angeles, where the franchise moved to in 1982 after lengthy court battles before returning to the Bay Area in 1995. three of those wins, a list that includes fellow Hall of Famers Ray Guy and Ted Hendricks.
In 1983, Branch tied the NFL record with a 99-yard touchdown in a regular season game. He ranks third among the Raiders’ passing catchers in receiving yards with 8,685, behind Tim Brown and Biletnikoff – both Hall of Famers.
“I’ve had him since his first day with the Raiders,” Flores said. “I watched him grow. I’m so proud of what he’s become. He was a watershed.”
Branch’s honor comes just over three years after he died at age 71 of natural causes, marking the second time in recent years that a major Raiders player has been inducted into the Hall of Fame posthumously. Stabler was sworn in in 2016, a year after his death.
The long wait denied Branch the chance to enjoy the honor he so longed to receive after being semifinalists in 2004 and 2010.
“All my peers that I’ve played against that are in the Hall of Fame, they tell me I deserve to be in the Hall of Fame,” Branch told the Raiders’ website in an interview shortly before his death. “It’s the ultimate glory, just like winning a Super Bowl ring.”
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