Cliff Branch Belongs In The Pro Football Hall of Fame

John Madden once told NFL Films “Cliff Branch was so skinny when he walked his back pockets would fight.” Yet no one put fear in NFL secondaries when it came to getting beat deep during the 1970’s. When someone says close your eyes and picture the Oakland Raiders of the ’70’s, one of the first visuals you’d have would be Stabler launching a bomb in Cliff’s direction.

BranchBWDrafted out of Colorado in 1972, Branch was a football and track star in college. Oakland had been without a true deep threat since Warren Wells departure a few years earlier. His baptism by fire would come as he learned the game from Hall of Famer WR Fred Biletnikoff and going up against Hall of Fame CBs Willie Brown and Skip “Dr Death” Thomas in practice.

Going against those 2 big physical corners, Branch grew up in a hurry. When he was unleashed on an unsuspecting NFL as a 1st time starter in 1974, Branch blazed for 60 rec 1,092 yards and 13 TDs. Pedestrian by today’s standards until you realize he was 4th in receptions and led the league in yards and touchdowns.

It was the 1st of 4 straight Pro Bowl and All Pro seasons. He was the #1 weapon on a team that finished in no less than the AFC Championship in each of those campaigns. His best season capped off the Raider’s Super Bowl XI championship when he caught 46 passes for 1,111 yards and 12 touchdowns. Why was it his best? He led the league in TDs and was 2nd in yards losing to Roger Carr by 1 yard on arguably the most powerful NFL champion of the 1970’s.

One aspect of Branch’s game that makes him an all timer is how he played in big games. When everyone marveled at Hall of Famer Jerry Rice as he was breaking all time NFL post season records, whose records did you think he was breaking? When Rice caught 3 TDs in Super Bowl XXIV, he was breaking the Super Bowl record for touchdowns in a game when Branch set it with 2 against the Eagles in XV. When Branch retired after the 1985 season, he was the NFL’s All Time postseason reception (73) and yardage (1,223) leader before Rice broke them some 9 years later. He had broken the previous records set by fellow Raider WR Biletnikoff, who was now his coach.

However records and numbers only tell a part of the story. How much space did defenses give him in respect to his speed that opened up opportunities for Biletnikoff and Hall of Fame TE Dave Casper?? Do you realize he was the only skill player on all 3 Raider Super Bowl champions?? Against the Eagles in Super Bowl XV it was his 2 scores that broke the game open 21-3…winning it 27-10.

In Super Bowl XVIII when the Raiders held a precarious 7-0 lead over Washington it was Branch who blew that game open too. The Raiders first score was a blocked punt. In the 2nd quarter, a 35 year old Branch beat Anthony Washington and Darryl Green on a 50 yard bomb to put the silver and black in scoring position. A few plays later Branch scored from 14 yards out to give the Raiders a 14-0 lead. This took John Riggins out of the game and forced the Redskins to pass into the teeth of a secondary led by Vann McElroy, Lester Hayes, Mike Haynes, and Mike Davis. A 38-9 triumph won him his 3rd championship ring.

For his 14 year career he caught 501 passes for 8,685 yds and 67 touchdowns. His fellow receivers Biletnikoff and Casper have each made “The Hall.” This August his original quarterback, Ken Stabler will be enshrined posthumously. His original coach John Madden and the late Al Davis have both been enshrined. Once Tom Flores and Cliff Branch are voted in, it will close this chapter on Oakland /L.A. Raiders football.

For enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I present to you Cliff Branch.

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SUPER BOWL XV CHAMPION 1980 OAKLAND RAIDERS

January 25, 1981 With a yellow ribbon decorating the Super Dome to welcome back the hostages from Iran, Super Bowl XV was played where the Raiders bested the Eagles 27-10 to earn this beautiful ring. One item to note, Al Davis used the AFL “A” on the side of the ring instead of the modified block “A” for the AFC.

supebowlxvbigsideThe first Super Bowl ring I ever saw in person and sparked the first of many conversations.  It was Cedrick Hardman’s (#86), when I met him at the White House in Laguna Beach, California in 2001. He was a former 49er defensive end from the “Gold Rush” era in the early 70’s. Or where non football fans would remember him as the brother with the beard in the scene from the first House Party movie when Kid went to jail…anyway…

He laughed that I was too young to know any of that and when I told him he had just gone to the Raiders that year along with Burgess Owens#44, DeWayne O’Steen#35, and Odis McKinney #23 on the defensive side of the ball and should have a Super Bowl XV ring to show for it. He held up his fist with the ring on and let’s just say the drinks were flowin’ and the football talk took off. 

superbowlxvCan someone explain how Rod Martin wasn’t MVP of Super Bowl XV? Aside from AJ Duhe of the Dolphins, in the ’82 AFC Championship game, I can’t recall a linebacker intercepting 3 passes in 1 game. This had as much to do with the Raiders taking home the prize as much as Jim Plunkett’s 261 yards and 3 TDs. He picked off Ron Jaworski on the Eagles 3rd play and was the one who got the momentum going for the silver and black. What’s interesting is that this was the career year for Lester Hayes, who intercepted 13 passes, just 1 shy of Dick “Night Train” Lane’s record set in the 1951. Hayes was NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1980 as a result.

What’s amazing is how different this team was from the team that won Super Bowl XI just 4 years prior. Now with free agency, we’re used to roster turn over but when you think of teams back then, you practically could name half the roster without giving it much thought.

Super-Bowl-Trophy-SizeNine of the eleven starters from the Super Bowl XI champion on defense had changed with the lone holdovers DE John Matuszak & LB Ted Hendricks (from The [[_]]). On offense, WR Fred Biletnikoff, TE Dave Casper, RB Clarence Davis, and QB Ken Stabler were gone from the offense. Of their skill players, only FB Mark Van Eeghen & WR Cliff Branch remained.

Ironically, Jack Tatum and Ken Stabler were traded to Houston for Dan Pastorini. Pastorini broke his leg in the fifth game of the year and in came Jim Plunkett, and who did the Raiders play in the ’80 AFC Wildcard?? Yup, that same Houston Oiler team who failed to “kick in the door” to get to the Super Bowl.  That game was truly strange, watching Ken Stabler quarterbacking against the Raiders, in Oakland, for a playoff game.  I think this team won partially because teams couldn’t study them.  Couple these personnel points with the fact that Tom Flores was a 2nd year coach, what would you study?

This brings us to the signature game during their run for the 1980 title against the Cleveland Browns.  This AFC Divisional playoff was in -49*degree w/wind-chill in Cleveland Municipal Stadium.  How can a team from California win that game?? I can still remember when Sam Rutigliano sent the Browns offense back out onto the field. Browns were losing 14-12 and had the ball inside the 15 yd line with less than a minute to go in the game. I’m yelling “Send in the field goal team! What are you doing?”

Wouldn’t you know that Brian Sipe throws it into the endzone and Mike Davis intercepted it ending the Browns season when they could have easily had Don Cockcroft kick the winning field goal? “Red Right 88” became a play that went down in NFL history and a day of infamy for Browns fans everywhere. These Raiders just found ways to win. No other way to say it.

super-bowl-logo-1980Brimming with confidence, the Raiders moved on to upset the San Diego Chargers 34-27 in the AFC Championship.  Jim Plunkett won MVP honors two weeks later in the Super Bowl throwing for 261 yards and 3TDs including an 80yard TD to Kenny King which set a Super Bowl record, winning 27-10. The Raiders played like a team accustomed to winning when in fact many of their players were in their first Super Bowl. The year after the ’79 Steelers became the first Super Bowl winner comprised of players who had not played for any other team. The ’80 Raiders won it all with a team that no one could recognize.

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Lester Hayes Belongs In The Hall of Fame

Does he have on enough stickum??

As the NFL changed the rules in 1978 to liberate the passing game, many thought the big physical cornerback would give way to smaller quicker men. Those who could turn and run with receivers after the 5 yard “chuck” zone (The Mel Blount Rule) would be highly sought after. Yet one team held steadfast to the belief of not allowing that receiver a free ride off the line of scrimmage.

The Oakland Raiders who in 1977, just one year removed from winning Super Bowl XI, selected Lester Hayes out of Texas A&M. Where the league saw smaller cornerbacks at 175-180 lbs enter the league at that time. Hayes was a converted college safety who stood 6’0 and weighed 200 lbs.

His inclusion into the Raiders organization was at the right time as Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown retired and took over as secondary coach. Under his tutelage Hayes became a master of bump and run coverage and with his size, manhandled receivers at the line of scrimmage. Sure a receiver could run free after 5 yards but he had to get there first.

Another retiring Hall of Fame Raider was WR Fred Biletnikoff who went against Hayes in practice. Fred ran crisp routes and was a slower version of Steve Largent or a Charlie Joiner. Going up against he and Cliff Branch, who was the one of the league’s perennial deep threats, honed his skills to that of one of the greatest cornerbacks the game had ever seen. He also borrowed Biletnikoff’s use of stickum and took it to obscene levels. Take a look at the pic on the right if you think we’re joking.

Stickum talk aside, his true coming out party was the 1979 season where he led the team with 7 interceptions, returning 2 for touchdowns in the only losing season for the Raider organization during the 1970’s. John Madden had retired and Tom Flores had taken over as Head Coach and the Raiders were a team in transition.

Most teams make a transition in personnel with a defensive leader being a linebacker or a star defensive lineman being a marquee player yet here was a cornerback just starting to make a name for himself at the helm. However he couldn’t unseat Louis Wright of Denver, Mel Blount of Pittsburgh, or Mike Haynes of New England on the 1979 AFC Pro Bowl roster. Naturally you’ll conclude they had better seasons yet Blount and Haynes made it on reputation with only 3 interceptions each and Wright only had 2. A gross injustice just because Hayes team had slipped that year.

Enter the greatest single season for a cornerback in NFL history and the greatest coaching job in NFL history…the 1980 Oakland Raiders. In the second season for Tom Flores, the Raiders became the first team to win the Super Bowl from a wildcard position. The team had replaced nine defensive starters from a Super Bowl team just four years before.

Lester Hayes intimidating style at cornerback belied his agility to cover the fastest and best route runners in the NFL.For the season, he picked off 13 passes, just one short of the NFL record by “Night Train” Lane in 1951.  Not only was that the highest total in 39 years, no cornerback has come within 2 of that performance since then (Everson Walls in 1981). He returned those passes for 273 yards and one touchdown and went on to be the Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

He was the first player to receive the award while playing for a team that didn’t finish as a top 10 defense with the Raiders finishing 11th. He did this while facing Hall of Fame WRs Steve Largent in Seattle, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow in San Diego, and the electrifying John Jefferson also of the Chargers with whom he had epic battles with.

During the 1980 season teams kept testing him and coming up snake eyes. If you added his 4 interceptions during the playoffs he finished with 17 interceptions in one season. If you look at that against the year Hall of Famer Deion Sanders won his NFL MVP (1994 with San Francisco) from the same position, 6 interceptions for 303 yards and 3 TDs with 2 more ints. in the postseason, it dwarfs it tremendously. Sanders needed another NINE interceptions just to tie him!!!  You would have to add Deion’s next FOUR seasons with Dallas to total 17!! Tremendous

Oakland went on to win Super Bowl XV and the 80 playoffs began with a wildcard battle against Houston and former quarterback Ken Stabler. The Raiders prevailed 27-7 with the final points scored on Hayes intercepting Stabler and returning it 20 yards hand held high to send the Raiders to Cleveland and the divisional round.

He intercepted Stabler twice then intercepted 1980 NFL MVP Brian Sipe twice in the 14-12 upset of the Browns. In the AFC Championship against the Chargers and the Super Bowl with the Eagles, Dan Fouts and Ron Jaworski just didn’t throw into his area. How do we know this?? In Super Bowl XV Hayes was the left cornerback. Jaworski threw exclusively to his left and Right OLB Rod Martin picked off a Super Bowl record 3 interceptions in a 27-10 win.

The NFL outlawed stickum after that 1980 season in anther decision that Raider loyalist felt was the offspring from the court battle between Raiders’ owner Al Davis and commissioner Pete Rozelle. Some thought that Hayes inability to use stickum had a lot to do with his interception total dropping, when in fact quarterbacks just flat didn’t throw into his area. He never intercepted more than 3 passes in a season from that point forward.

Lester Hayes showing off both rings from Super Bowl XV and XVIII

After being overshadowed by Mike Haynes for that 1979 Pro Bowl slot, he was joined by his former counterpart in 1983 to form one of the greatest CB tandem in NFL history. In that year the Washington Redskins became the highest scoring team in NFL history scoring 541 points on their way to Super Bowl XVIII. Washington’s quarterback Joe Theismann was the NFL’s MVP and the Redskins were being hailed as the greatest team in NFL history…yet they had to defend their title against Los Angeles.

The Raiders started their charge in the 83 playoffs with a 37-10 devastation of the Pittsburgh Steelers which ironically began with Hayes getting the team started with an 18 yard TD interception return. After a 30-14 win against the Seahawks in the AFC Championship experts had the Redskins winning a high scoring game.

What took place in Super Bowl XVIII was a dismantling of epic proportions. Charlie Brown, who had caught 78 for 1,225 and 8 TDs during the regular season, was smothered along with Art Monk and held to a combined 4 receptions by Hayes and Haynes. The coverage was so superb the Raiders blitzed their linebackers and recorded 6 sacks as Joe Theismann had his worst game of the year. His stat-line?? Theismann was held to 16 of 35 for 243 yards and 2 ints. Only one pass was completed in Lester Hayes area the entire day. He won his second championship ring as the Raiders won in dominating fashion 38-9.

Hayes at this point was the best cornerback in all of football. He played in 5 straight Pro Bowls from 1980-1984 and was the player most future NFL’ers modeled their game after. Most notably Hanford Dixon of the Cleveland Browns. Everything from the three foot long towel hanging from his waist to his aggressive play against a receiver at the line. Dixon and Frank Minnifield are the tandem that Lester Hayes and Mike Haynes are most often compared to. As a combo… Dixon and Minnifield were the best tandem in NFL history. Yet the man who coined the Brown’s “Dawg Defense”, was a 3 time Pro Bowler who modeled himself to be like Lester, what would you call Hayes?? In The Chancellor’s book, he’s a Hall of Famer

For induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I present to you Lester Hayeslester