Cliff Branch’s speed led to the Hall of Fame after a long wait

Hall of Fame Branch Football (1983 AP)

Hall of Fame Branch Football (1983 AP)

Cliff Branch was the epitome of what Al Davis sought in a receiver during his decades with the Raiders.

Branch arrived in Oakland with the game-breaking speed needed to power the Raiders’ vertical offense, and once he learned to harness that speed and develop reliable hands, there was no stopping Branch.

Branch became one of the best deep threats of his era with some of his biggest performances coming on the game’s biggest stages to earn a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.

“He was a game changer,” said Hall of Fame coach Tom Flores, who was the Raiders’ receivers coach when Branch arrived and was his head coach for seven seasons.

“He had exceptional speed and multiple gears with speed. I had to guide him on how to slow down. It sounds ridiculous, but he tried to run the routes I taught in simulated speed and couldn’t do it. He tripped and clumsily, so I taught him to slide. He could glide faster than most people could run. So when you need it, turn it on.”

Branch arrived in Oakland as a fourth-round pick in 1972 after catching just 36 passes his final two years in college at Colorado. But Branch was also a star sprinter who set the NCAA championship record in the 100 meters shortly before joining the Raiders.

That speed is what Davis wanted to team up with future Hall of Famers Fred Biletnikoff and Dave Casper as pass catchers for Ken Stabler. But it took until his third season for Branch to break out.

Flores said he was immediately impressed with Branch’s toughness over the middle and ability to learn the offense, but the only issue that kept him off the field early was his hands as the frequent drops drew boos from the home fans.

“His first year was impressive and when he was open he was wide open because he was so quick, but then he would drop the ball,” Flores said. “But then in his third year, that’s when he really started to shine. It was the whole Al thing, speed and fear and big players. And he was a big player.”

Branch made the first of his three straight All-Pro teams in his first season as a starter in 1974 and never looked back. He scored 67 touchdowns through the air, and led the NFL in TD receptions in 1974 with 13 and in 1976 with 12. Branch also had a league-high 1,092 yards in 1974.

He was a force in the postseason, with 1,289 yards receiving. The Raiders won Super Bowls after the 1976, 1980, and 1983 seasons — the last in Los Angeles, where the franchise moved in 1982 after prolonged struggles before returning to the Bay Area in 1995. Branch was one of six players to play overall. three of those wins, a list that includes fellow Hall of Famers Ray Guy and Ted Hendricks.

In 1983, Branch set the NFL record with a 99-yard touchdown catch in a regular season game. He ranks third among Raiders pass catchers in receiving yards with 8,685, behind Tim Brown and Biletnikoff – both Hall of Famers.

“I had him from his first day with the Raiders,” Flores said. “I watched him grow up. I am so proud of what he became. He was a game changer.”

The honor for Branch comes just over three years after he died at age 71 of natural causes, and marked the second time in recent years that a Raiders great was inducted into the Hall of Fame posthumously. Stabler was inducted in 2016, a year after his death.

The long wait denied Branch the chance to enjoy the honor he had waited so long to receive after being a semi-finalist in 2004 and 2010.

“All my peers that I 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 crowning glory, just like getting a Super Bowl ring.”


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