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.

Advertisements

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.

me-mikedavis-xvringThanks for reading and please share the article.

SUPER BOWL XI CHAMPION 1976 OAKLAND RAIDERS

Al Davis said he wanted a ring so nice that he wanted a Raider to be able to meet the Queen of England and not feel he had to take it off. Mission accomplished!! One of the unique features to every Raider championship ring is that Al Davis uses the AFL “A” and not the AFC “Block A” on the side. This was the bauble for winning Super Bowl XI on January 9, 1977 over the Minnesota Vikings 32-14.

superbowlxi3They finally clutched the prize, Madden, Stabler, Biletnikoff, Tatum, Hendricks, Matuszak, Sistrunk, Villapiano, Atkinson and Raider Nation.  What is strange is how the Raiders could have totally written sports history.  They played in 5 other conference championships before winning the Super Bowl in 1976.

That’s without talking about the “job” they got in the Immaculate Reception in the 1972 AFC Divisional playoff that would have put them in a SIXTH. I cornered Franco Harris in 1991 and tried to get him to exact the ball hit Fuqua and not Tatum and he wouldn’t do it!! sigh…yet I digress  After playing in Super Bowl II, the Raiders could have been in Super Bowls 3,4,5, 8-10, & 12. So this was the culmination of pushing to be the best over all those years.

imagesrYet stop and think about how history could have been written had they won those games.

  1. We wouldn’t have had Joe Namath’s guarantee in Super Bowl III
  2. The Raiders would have played the Vikings in Super Bowl IV, who was the original AFL team to be in Minnesota, until the NFL undercut the AFL by giving the owners of that territory an NFL franchise. This is ironically how the AFL got to Oakland in the first place.
  3. They would have stopped Johnny U. and the Colts from making the “Blunder Bowl” or Super Bowl V and could have been going for a threepeat. Had they won in 69 and 70 it would have made them the last AFL Champion as well as the first AFC Champion.
  4. They would have stopped the Dolphins from being a dynasty by keeping them from winning back to back Super Bowls. By the way, remember the undefeated 1972 Dolphins and their record 18 game winning streak?  Who did they lose to? The Raiders in early 1973 in a game played at Berkeley because the A’s were in the World Series. Footnote this with it was the Raiders who in the ’74 Divisional playoff, the “Sea of Hands” play stopped the Dolphins from going to 3 Super Bowls in a row…so this isn’t far-fetched folks.
  5. They would have stopped the Steelers dynasty from taking off (Super Bowls IX & X) and would have been crowned team of the 70’s by this time easily. Don’t start Steeler fans because these were some battles with the Raiders.
  6. They would have stopped the Broncos miracle ’77 season keeping them out of Super Bowl XII.

As for the team that always threw deep, I find it ironic that the Super Bowl XI MVP was a supposedly slow, couldn’t get deep, that left the NFL as the leading playoff touchdown in receptions and yards before he left in 1977 and that is Fred Biletnikoff.  My man was busy cookin’ the best that the NFL had to offer at CB.

It was understood when the game was on the line they went to the diminutive route runner from Florida St. Fred Biletnikoff had only 4 catches in Super Bowl XI, yet those catches set up 3 Super Bowl scores, and was the focus of why the Raiders blew out the Vikings in Super Bowl XI.

super-bowl-logo-1976He was a tremendous performer and the predecessor of Lester Hayes’ use of stickum in 1980.   He was the all time post season reception leader and yardage when he retired. Who broke his record? Cliff Branch…the man he showed the ropes on being an NFL receiver.  Jerry Rice eventually broke these records but you have to appreciate how things became the way they are.

Now Raider fans, you guys have to let go of the Immaculate Reception as I had to after several beers with Franco.  You did get jobbed and that ’75 AFC Championship Game icy field in Pittsburgh was fair when you guys played head games with the Chiefs and others about leaving the water on all night, hence the wet field. It’s just gamesmanship.

Well the idea the refs were out to get you guys disappeared in the ’76 divisional playoffs with the Sugar Bear Hamilton roughing the passer call on Stabler.  That call was among the worst ever!! Remember that call?? In the AFC Divisional playoff in 1976 you were losing to the Patriots 21-17 and were about to have to face a 4th and 17 with 1:38  left. Just seconds away from being upset when the flag came in…

So Stabler scored the winning touchdown with :10 seconds left and you were off to the AFC Championship. Big beneficiary of a very bad call. Hamilton hit Stabler under the arm…

OK then you guys got robbed in Denver on Lytle’s fumble in the 1977 AFC Championship game….ok maybe there is somethin’ to it.  The tuck rule with Tom Brady and the Patriots in 2001…damn you guys are on to something!! Just keep in mind you have had your share of calls also.

Thanks for reading and please share the article.

The History of The AFL: Making Amends

As The Chancellor of Football, it’s imperative the history of the NFL and AFL is preserved and showcased for future generations. One of my favorite friends to Taylor Blitz Times is Chris Burford. Not only was he the starting wideout for the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl I, he was the first player signed in the history of the American Football League. He also suggested a great book to me last year. The Ten Gallon War which covered the days when the Chiefs / Dallas Texans battled the Cowboys for the heart of Dallas.

chris burfordAt the end of the highlight for Super Bowl I, he’s the one who puts on the Cowboy hat and heads out as John Facenda’s voice offers “In another year it will be the turn of the AFL. But this first spectacle of a sport belonged to Green Bay.”

These words echoed in my mind when Chris commented on an article which was the earlier incarnation of one I did on the ’66 Chiefs here.

“The major press were all in the NFL’s corner and denigrated our teams throughout the 60′s…however, when all was said and done after 10 years and 4 Super Bowls, the score was AFL 2 NFL 2…..(Chiefs 1-1), and the football world knew we could play with or against anybody….was a great time in pro football and a joy to have played in the AFL, from the beginning and through the emergence of the league….John Facenda, the Sabol’s, Pete Rozelle, Sports Illustrated, and the NFL propaganda machine notwithstanding.”

Full comment and original article here.

I thought it would be fitting to share with Chris one of my older archives where the late Steve Sabol had the late John Facenda narrate The History of The AFL. It’s told in a very respectful vain. The importance of this is even in the highlight for Super Bowl III, NFL Films narrated it with an NFL slant. Steve Sabol some time around 2000, later apologized for it. Going over the top about “One more moment for the master”- John Unitas trying to bring the Colts from behind instead of focusing on Joe Namath, the AFL, and the Jets victory. Which further validates Chris’ point.

So without further adieu lets take you back to this gem recorded in 1987 yet was produced in 1982.

Unfortunately I started two a day practice and didn’t get the other two shows recorded. What most folks don’t understand is there is still a battle between the AFL and NFL. For those that were there, some like Al Davis, didn’t want a merger. Others went on yet have their memories intact of the 10 year war and are fighting to be remembered and recognized. How the late DE Jerry Mays and FS Johnny Robinson were on the All Time AFL team, yet not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, are glaring omissions.

Websites like mine and Todd Tobias’ Tales From The American Football League do what we can to recognize these players. I know this doesn’t totally make amends Chris but something I wanted to share this Memorial weekend.

Thanks for reading and please share the article.

SUPER BOWL II RUNNER UP 1967 OAKLAND RAIDERS

Ahhh…January 14, 1968 the second AFL/ NFL World Championship game…Super Bowl II: Packers 33-14 over Oakland. The game was best remembered as Vince Lombardi’s final game as legendary Packers coach. Yet the culmination of Al Davis work, since returning from a stint as AFL commissioner, also took the field that day down in the Orange Bowl.

sb2l

Al Davis fist Raider ring

The 1967 Raiders had the best record in all of pro football with a 13-1 record. After throttling the Houston Oilers 40-7 in the AFL Championship, they were poised to avenge the AFL’s first SuperBowl loss. Behind the “Mad Bomber” Daryle Lamonica, this era of Oakland Raider football was among the best in Raider history. When you look at the years 1967, ’68,’69, and 1970 the Raiders made it to the AFL Championship or AFC Championship every year.

The block AFL

The block AFL “A” along with the 1967 AFL Championship score 40-7 over Houston.

Warren Wells and Hall of Famer Fred Biletnikoff were the receivers during these years. Wells was the quintessential deep threat where as Biletnikoff was the intermediate target piling up yardage over the middle. Biletnikoff at one point held the postseason record for receptions, yardage, and touchdowns who later was named Super Bowl XI MVP. Hewritt Dixon and Clem Daniels (AFL All Time leading rusher) were the running backs for this team.

The defense was led by Ben Davidson at DE, Carleton Oats, Tom Keating on the defensive line formed a serious pass rush. Dan Conner and Gus Otto were steady linebackers yet the secondary was a serious strength of this team and where they borrowed the techniques started in Buffalo of tight cornerbacks playing “bump and run” coverage. Hall of Famer Willie Brown and Kent McCloughan were strong on coverage. This coverage along with the rush was what propelled this team to a 13-1 record. Their 1st chance to win the AFL championship in the Oakland Alameda County Coliseum went like this:

Silver & Black...#1 in the AFL West

Silver & Black…#1 in the AFL West

They played in some of the most famous games in football history, from The Heidi Bowl to George Blanda’s miracle season of 1970 where he garnered MVP votes for 5 nail biting finishes. It was this era that propelled the Raiders into becoming the winningest organization in sports…then the Stabler, Branch, Biletnikoff (still going), Tatum, Atkinson, Villapiano, Hendricks era took it from there.

super-bowl-logo-1967Not bad for a franchise that was supposed to be in Minnesota huh? Minnesota?? Yeah Minnesota. I have told the story before where one of the final AFL teams was going to be in Viking country. However the NFL brass told the owners of the Minnesota territory to wait until the last second to defect to the NFL for one of their franchises. When that happened, the AFL moved the chess piece further west and drafted the Oakland territory. So its fitting that the masterpiece that was the first Raider Super Bowl win was in the 11th edition against Minnesota…. How’s that for irony?? LOL

SUPER BOWL I RUNNER UP 1966 KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

The first AFL Super Bowl representative was the 1966 Chiefs, by virtue of a 31-7 burial of MY Buffalo Bills who were trying to 3-peat in the AFL.  With a little bit of luck the Cowboys would best the Packers and the Chiefs could play the Cowboys in Super Bowl I…..uh, sorry Green Bay wasn’t having it besting the Cowboys 34-27 in the NFL Title game.  Then those Packers went on to beat Kansas City in Super Bowl I 35-10.  So why am I talkin’ about Dallas??  Would you believe there is a history?

1loserThe KC Chiefs had moved from Dallas to Kansas City back in 1963 and even though they were AFL Champions, Lamar Hunt (AFL Founder) moved the team to not compete with the Dallas Cowboys.  The NFL, conservative and slow to expand, placed a new franchise in Dallas in 1960 since Lamar Hunt would have a team there.  They were even more shiesty with what they did with the Minnesota territory…yet we’ll get back to that…

AllDecalsDuring the 1960s, war raged between the NFL and AFL, these two principles from Dallas who both lived there crossed paths several times and were architects, in clandestine, about a possible merger between the two leagues.

They even met once at Love Field in Dallas under the Texas Ranger statue to talk about it right before Hunt boarded a plane for Houston to meet with Bud Adams and other AFL owners to vote Al Davis AFL Commissioner where the war for players escalated 10 fold. This act and subsequent talent drain included signing players from the other league (free agency LOL) that finally brought each side to the table.  At the meeting to announce the merger did you notice that Tex Schramm (Cowboys) and Lamar Hunt (Chiefs) flanked NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle at that conference?

So it would have been something had the Chiefs faced the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl I.  Uh, but you see there was this team from Green Bay and…Uh…well, LOL let’s just say they weren’t going to be denied.  So with that, this ring is for the AFL Champion Kansas City Chiefs formerly known as the Dallas Texans for reaching Super Bowl I.

 

super-bowl-logo-1966EPILOGUE: About that Minnesota thing… The AFL was originally going to have a franchise in Minnesota and in a move of espionage out of James Bond, cold war, double agent dealing, the NFL told the owners of that franchise to stay quiet and at the last minute award them an NFL franchise in 1960 to try to sink the new league.  The AFL couldn’t operate with only 7 teams.  Fitting that the last game in the history of the AFL, Super Bowl IV, Kansas City beat Minnesota 23-7 to offer some payback.

What happened to the team that would have been in Minnesota you ask?  They went west and became the Oakland Raiders, the Chiefs main rival.  As irony would have it, they too bested Minnesota in a Super Bowl winning the 11th edition 32-14.  So when you think of the Vikings of the 70’s and their 4 Super Bowl losses, karma caught up to them for what happened in 1960… The fact that the Vikings first and last Super Bowl losses came courtesy of these two teams is more karma than ironic. Folks I can’t make this stuff up.