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NEW Fox News articles can now be heard on audio! Read this article. Cliff Branch embodied everything Al Davis sought in a receiver during his tenure as the Raiders’ owner.
Branch brought the game-changing speed necessary to power the Raiders’ vertical offense to Oakland, and once he figured out how to control that speed and hone his hands, there was no stopping him.
With some of his best performances occurring on the biggest stages of the game, Branch developed into one of the best deep threats of his time and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.
Hall of Fame coach Tom Flores, who was Branch’s head coach for seven seasons and was a receivers coach for the Raiders when he came, described him as “a game-changer.”
At the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California, on December 3, 1978, Cliff Branch of the Oakland Raiders is tackled by Bob of the Denver Broncos after gaining nine yards on a throw from quarterback Ken Stabler. One of his generation’s top deep threats, Branch was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (AP Photo/File: Paul Sakuma)
“He had a unique speed and various gears to go with it. He needed some instruction on how to slow down. Although it sounds absurd, he tried to run the routes I was instructing in pretend speed but was unable to accomplish so. I taught him to glide because he was awkward and prone to tripping. He was able to glide more quickly than most individuals could run. then switch it on when you need it.”
After catching just 36 passes over his final two years of college at Colorado, Branch was selected in the fourth round by Oakland in 1972. However, Branch was also a standout sprinter who, just before signing with the Raiders, broke the 100-meter NCAA championship meet record.
For the pass catchers for Ken Stabler, Davis sought to link up with future Hall of Famers Fred Biletnikoff and Dave Casper. Branch didn’t become popular until his third season, though.
The only thing that kept Branch off the field early on was his hands as the frequent drops drew boos from the home crowd, but Flores said he was immediately pleased by Branch’s toughness over the middle and ability to grasp the playbook.
“In his first year, he was remarkable and would drop the ball when he was wide open because he was so quick,” recalled Flores. “However, it was in his third year that he truly began to stand out. Al’s whole situation involved speed, terror, and big-play players. He also liked to make big plays.”
Football: Super Bowl XV: At the Louisiana Superdome, Philadelphia Eagles defense player John Bunting (95) faces up against Oakland Raiders linebacker Cliff Branch (21). LA’s New Orleans 1/25/1981 (Image courtesy of Sports Illustrated/Walter Iooss Jr. via Getty Images) )
In his first season as a starter in 1974, Branch earned the first of his three consecutive All-Pro teams and never looked back. He amassed 67 touchdowns in the air, and in 1974 and 1976, he led the NFL in touchdown receptions with 13 and 12 respectively. Branch also set a league record for receiving yards in 1974 with 1,092.
With 1,289 receiving yards in the postseason, he was a force. Following the 1976, 1980, and 1983 seasons, the Raiders won three Super Bowls, the last of which they achieved in Los Angeles before moving back to the Bay Area in 1995. The franchise relocated there in 1982 after protracted legal disputes. Branch joined fellow Hall of Famers Ray Guy and Ted Hendricks on the list of six players who participated in all three of those triumphs.
Branch’s 99-yard touchdown catch in a regular-season game in 1983 tied the NFL record. With 8,685 receiving yards, he ranks third among Raiders pass catchers, behind only Hall of Famers Tim Brown and Biletnikoff.
I’ve known him from the day he signed with the Raiders, according to Flores. “I observed his development. I’m very pleased with who he has become. He changed the game.”
Branch’s induction into the Hall of Fame comes just over three years after his passing at age 71 from natural causes, making this the second notable Raiders player to receive such a distinction recently. A year following his passing, Stabler was inducted in 2016.
During the first quarter of an NFL football playoff game in Los Angeles on January 8, 1983, Los Angeles Raiders wide receiver Cliff Branch, right, receives a pass from quarterback Jim Plunkett for a 64-yard gain while Cleveland Browns’ Hanford Dixon defends. One of his generation’s top deep threats, Branch was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. (AP Images/File)
Branch was unable to savor the accolade he had waited so long to receive after being a semifinalist in 2004 and 2010. This was due to the lengthy wait.
Branch told the Raiders website in an interview just before he passed away, “All my peers that I played against and that are in the Hall of Fame, they tell me that I deserve to be in the Hall of Fame.” It is the pinnacle achievement, similar to receiving a Super Bowl ring.