Todd Christensen Belongs in The Hall of Fame

When Shannon Sharpe was inducted into “The Hall” back in 2011, pundits began to voice which of the new breed would be the next TE to get into Canton. Would it be Tony Gonzalez, Jason Witten, or Antonio Gates?? There is even outside talk of former Patriot Ben Coates as these were the dominant men at the position over the last 25 years. Uhhh… wait a minute… How did we get this far without mention of former  Oakland/L.A. Raider Todd Christensen??

A man once cut by the Dallas Cowboys found a home in Oakland and became one of the main targets in the heyday of the AFC West. The question that arises is how did we forget Christensen?? Was it the fact he was a specials teams player who didn’t start until his 4th year?? Or is this more bias against the late Al Davis’ Raiders??

In 1980 the NFL was marveling at the performance of future Hall of Fame TE Kellen Winslow in San Diego. When he burst onto the scene with 89 receptions, a record for Tight Ends at the time, for 1,290 and 9TDs. He became the measuring stick for all who would play his position especially with this only his 2nd season.

When he completed the ’81 season with 88 receptions only future Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome was anywhere near Winslow on the marquee. Or so pundits thought.

In 1981 after becoming the 1st defending Super Bowl champion to finish with a losing record (7-9) the following season, the Raiders had to make changes. The 1st is they moved to L.A. then drafted super back Marcus Allen then following an old Raider tradition, converted a former running back into a Tight End…. Todd Christensen. If you went back 2 decades before, the Raiders converted former Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon from RB to TE and sparked their run to Super Bowl II.

The ’82 Raiders had the NFL’s best record in a strike shortened season at 8-1, and Christensen finished 5th in receiving among TEs with 42 receptions for 510 yds and 4 TDs. Although the Raiders were upset 17-14 by the NY Jets in the AFC playoffs, a star was born.  The next year saw the Raiders cement the notion they had supplanted the Air Coryell Chargers as the best of the AFC West.

Every great player needs a signature game and in the 14th week of 1983 the Chargers were hosting the Raiders in a special Thursday Night telecast. To add to the excitement both Christensen and Winslow were on pace to tie or break Kellen’s TE record of ’89 receptions set in 1980. In front of a nationwide audience Todd proved his worth.

 

 

Buoyed by this great performance the Raiders propelled themselves to the AFC’s best record at 12-4. Not only did the Raiders go on to win Super Bowl XVIII, Christensen unseated Winslow as the game’s premiere tight end as the loss also ended the reign of “Air Coryell”. His 8 receptions 140 yards and 3 TDs completely outshone his Charger counterpart’s 4 catches for 30 yards. This was the difference between Todd’s record of 92 receptions to Winslow’s 88 to conclude ’83.

Los Angeles Raiders tight end Todd Christensen (46) blocks New York Giants linebacker Carl Banks (58) during a 14-9 Giants victory on September 21, 1986, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, California. (AP Photo/NFL Photos)

As injuries slowed Winslow it was Christensen who went on to maintain Pro Bowl level of play through 1987 when he went to his 5th straight. One aspect of a Tight End is to remember the primary role is to be a blocker. In the ’85 campaign he helped pave the way for NFL rushing champion Marcus Allen who ran for 1,759 yards. The following season he broke his previous NFL record for TEs as he nabbed 95 balls for 1,153 yards and 8 scores.

He led the NFL in receptions in 1983 and 1986 for all receivers not just Tight Ends.

In an era with 2 other Hall of Fame TEs Christensen had the best peak years.

  • Christensen ’83-’86: 349 rec. 4,394 yards 33 TDs *5 Pro Bowls*
  • Winslow ’80-’83: 319 rec. 4,258 yards 33 TDs *4 Pro Bowls*
  • Ozzie Newsome ’81-’84: 296 rec. 3,626 yards 20 TDs *3 Pro Bowls*
  • *Career Pro Bowls listed*

Now to be fair, Winslow and Newsome’s years include the strike shortened ’82 stanza which only had 9 regular season games. However keep in mind Todd was on special teams as a long snapper, set 2 receiving records at TE and blocked for 1985’s MVP and rushing champion Marcus Allen. Then don’t forget one of those record setting season was for a world champion when they won Super Bowl XVIII 38-9 over Washington.

Keep in mind his record for receptions in a season at TE was tied once in 1994 by Ben Coates, yet stood for 18 years until Tony Gonzalez broke it in 2004. His record stood as long as Dan Marino’s TD record when you think of how long he held it.

This isn’t to take away from the 2 gentlemen in “The Hall” from the same position, but how can Winslow (inducted in 1995) and Newsome (inducted in 1999) be in and we don’t even hear Christensen mentioned?? Is it because he was a late bloomer who went on to star on the 3rd team he played for?? Is this more of the media bias against Al Davis’ Raiders who seem to come up on the short end when it comes to Hall of Fame consideration??

A part of this has to do with the Raiders moving from Oakland to Los Angeles and then back to Oakland in 1995. Those Los Angeles sportswriters didn’t honor the team and campaign for those players once the team went back up north. Many sportswriters campaign for players whom they lobbied for their team to draft originally and usually in the 1st round. His rocky path to Oakland through Dallas and New York is why he didn’t have that.

Yet they have/had a responsibility and shouldn’t have taken it out on those player’s legacies. I see these men all the time on talk shows over on ESPN when they have an obligation as history’s gatekeepers with their fellow writers and they have failed. They are why Todd, Head Coach Tom FloresLester Hayes, and Cliff Branch are on the outside looking in. It’s time to right these injustices.

Christensen deserves to be enshrined in Canton. Although we lost Todd, who passed in 2013, his family and Raider teammates should be able to share in that final honor.

For induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I present to you, Todd Christensen.

Dedicated in his memory: Todd Christensen (August 3, 1956 – November 13, 2013)

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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.

SUPER BOWL XVIII CHAMPION 1983 LOS ANGELES RAIDERS

When Marcus Allen broke out with that famous run for LA in Super Bowl XVIII, you knew Al Davis was going to go with something similar to the past two rings…anyway Raiders 38-9 over the Redskins. Tom Flores became a great coach with not only his second Super Bowl win in 4 years. He knocked off a defending champion that was 1 game away from being labeled a dynasty.

sbxviiiHow did the Raiders kill the defending Redskins like that?  Beating the Redskins yes but dismantling them like that?  It’s still baffling some 31 years later.  The highest scoring team in history only scoring 9 points?  NFL Films shows you and tells the story. Raiders defense, Raiders defense, Raiders defense!  John Madden called the game, what more could a Raider fan want?

What most fans don’t remember was going into the ’83 AFC Championship Game, the Raiders had been swept by their division rival Seahawks during the year.  So Seattle was a formidable foe.  The game had a weird feel to it because it was drizzly and grey.  I remember Marcus Allen playing with a black eye, swollen like a boxer.  They ran over Seattle 30-14 and rewrote history.

sbxviii32Had Lyle Alzado controlled himself, the Raiders could have won that game in the 1982 playoffs (loss to Jets 17-14) and could have won Super Bowl XVII.  How do we know this?  The Redskins (who won XVII) was exceedingly stronger in 83 and that beating the Raiders gave them was epic.

Easily the strongest team in Raiders history with a mixture of old pros and young players that made up the core of this team.  Two Heisman winners on offense with Jim Plunkett and Marcus Allen.  Old pros like Cliff Branch and Todd Christensen.  Greg Pruitt was brought in to return kicks and set a league record for punt return yards.

sbxviii3Really solid defense…Reggie Kinlaw dominated from nose tackle with Hall of Famer Howie Long, the late Lyle Alzado, Greg Townsend on the defensive line were hard to move on the point.  They had the heaviest set of inside linebackers in Bob Nelson and Matt Millen. At 250lbs. each could take on and shed guards if they had too.  Rod Martin and Ted Hendricks ( the U) were the outside ‘backers with a lot of range.  Mike Davis and Vann McElroy were really solid safeties.

This defense had no real holes and then we get to Lester Hayes and Hall of Famer Mike Haynes.  One on one coverage at its finest that culminated in this performance against the Redskins receivers.

Charlie Brown and Art Monk combined for 125 receptions for 1,971 yards and 13 TDs during the season. Hayes and Haynes held them to 4 rec. for 119 yards…60 came on one play. It reduced the highest scoring team in NFL history to 1 scoring drive in the 3rd quarter. The next year in 1984 they started to give up some passing yards.  Yet Super Bowl XVIII they were at their zenith.

sbxviii5Remember that whole NFC 13 straight Super Bowl wins (19-31) and NFC dominance talk back when?  It was really worse than that.  After Pittsburgh’s win in XIV, only the Raiders won for the AFC in XV and XVIII. So it was really (16-31) that the NFC dominated but could not beat the Raiders winning 15 of 17.  Talk about carrying the torch for the conference…

 

It was also the last championship won by the Raiders under Al Davis. An original AFL pioneer who remained a separatist at heart and on all of the Raider’s Super Bowl winning rings, used the AFL “A” and not the AFC “A”.

 

Long live the American Football League, as we lost a pioneer back in 2011 when Al Davis passed.  In 2010 I attended a game in the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum and the ghosts of all those great Raider moments played out as I looked around that stadium. I met many former Raiders at the game and just missed Coach Flores but definitely would have loved to have met Al Davis.

bdavisThis is dedicated to the memories of Al Davis, along with Al LoCasale, Todd Christensen, Lyle Alzado, Earl Leggett, John Facenda, and Charlie Sumner.

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