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.

Legendary Days: Ken Stabler’s Last Great Comeback

A few short weeks ago we lost Ken Stabler and it was felt by football fans everywhere. In my article describing why he should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I cited the great moments he had as one of the reasons. He had so many famous 4th quarter finishes they had nicknames: The Holy Roller, The Sea of Hands, and The Ghost To The Post to name a few. However the one most people forgot about was his last great comeback.

Stabler celebrating a score in Super Bowl XI.

Stabler celebrating a score in Super Bowl XI.

John Madden, Fred Biletnikoff were gone and many holdovers from the 70’s were being phased out in 1979. Tom Flores was now the coach and Oakland was about to miss the playoffs for the second straight year. Only the second time this had happened in 12 years. They traveled to New Orleans where both teams at 7-6, clung to fading playoff hopes.

The Saints had a shot at finishing with their 1st ever winning season. They had Pro Bowlers in QB Archie Manning, RB Chuck Muncie, TE Henry Childs, and WR Wes Chandler. Now on a Monday Night they were going to show the nation and the rest of the NFL they were to be taken seriously. They came out firing and took a 28-14 halftime lead on Oakland. The Raiders looked like an aging team as the Superdome was raucous from the 1st half heroics, then it got even louder early in the 3rd quarter:

…and just like that Stabler brought the Raiders back from 35-14 to the greatest comeback win in Monday Night history 42-35.  The Snake had gone 26 of 45 for 295 yards and 4 touchdowns, 3 of which were thrown in the 4th quarter alone.  On a Monday night in December 1979, Stabler turned back the clock with an unbelievable performance.

RIP Kenny Stabler

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Ken Stabler Belongs In The Hall of Fame

When it comes to who should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, most inductees are in for the stellar performance over their careers entirety. Others are in based upon producing some of the greatest moments in football history. A third definition in the eyes of the The Chancellor is “Can we talk about the era in which a player performed without his name coming up?”  Ken Stabler of the Oakland Raiders fits the bill in all 3 of these categories.

KennyStablerHere in Taylor Blitz Times we have chronicled the long time bias against former Raiders when it comes to enshrinement. Head Coach John Madden’s field general has yet to be elected to Canton. Stabler was a throwback QB who called his own plays and routinely led the Raiders into the playoffs during the 1970’s. Along with Fan Tarkenton, Roger Staubach, and Terry Bradshaw, these four ruled the 1970’s and arguably Stabler had the most legendary moments.

On December 23,1972 in the AFC Divisional Playoff in Pittsburgh, Stabler, whom Madden had been grooming since 1968, was the wild card needed to change the tide of a game down 6-0. Desperate for some offense, John Madden inserted a young, mobile Kenny “The Snake” Stabler in for an anemic Daryle Lamonica which produced immediate results.

On a last second desperation drive, the Raiders came scrambling downfield with a young quarterback in his first significant action in an NFL playoff game. At the Steelers 30 with less than 1:30 to go, Stabler avoided the Steel Curtain, took off and scored on a 30 yard TD run to give the Raiders their first lead of the game 7-6. “The Snake” had done it!! A hero was born!! There was bedlam on the Oakland sideline and with 1:13 to go began to make reservations for they would host the AFC Championship Game against the undefeated Miami Dolphins.

However this was overshadowed by The Immaculate Reception that happened 4 plays later. Then later that day Roger Staubach had his 1st famous comeback in a 30-28 win in San Francisco. Yet Oakland knew they had their quarterback of the future and he could perform in pressure situations. Like a young George Blanda, who had a magical run during 1970, the Raiders could depend upon Stabler’s heroics for years to come.

Over the next 5 seasons as the starter, Stabler guided the Raiders to the AFC Championship Game. An NFL record. He was a daring quarterback who was a true river boat gambler. This led to some interceptions but even more daring touchdowns. He was old school yet enjoyed wine, women, and song out in the nightlife. He still came in and put in his work and teammates respected him and would follow him anywhere.

In 1973 Stabler completed an unheard of 62.7% of his passes, for 1,997 yards 14 TDs and 10 interceptions. The Raiders won the AFC West and got revenge on the Pittsburgh Steelers with a 33-14 win in the playoffs. The Miami Dolphins, on their way to back to back championships, beat them in the ’73 AFC Championship 27-10. Take a wild guess who was there to get revenge in the 1974 AFC Divisional Playoff?

Stabler ended the Dolphin dynasty with the touchdown to Clarence Davis in what became known as The Sea of Hands. One of the most famous games in NFL history.

Although the Raiders lost the AFC Championship the next two years to the rival Steelers, they came back in’76 with a vengeance. They recorded a 13-1 record and sought revenge on those Steelers yet needed another “Snake” come from behind miacle win in the AFC divisional round to get there.

The Raiders would go on to win the AFC Championship 24-7 over Pittsburgh, then Super Bowl XI over Minnesota 32-14. He had guided the Raiders to that elusive championship in an era when it seemed they would be destined to always be the bridesmaid. He had several great performances left but becoming a champion was the ultimate. In defending that championship in 1977, Stabler guided Oakland to their 5th straight AFC Title game in Denver. They fell short 20-17 in getting to Super Bowl XII. How much did that have to do with the fatigue from the 6 quarter epic, Ghost To the Post 37-31 victory over the Baltimore Colts 1 week before??

Stabler’s Raider career was filled with great highlights and one important Super Bowl championship. In 1976 he had one of the greatest season a QB could have. He went 194 of 291 for 2,737 yards 27 TDs and 17 ints and an astonishing completion rate of 67.7% and a 103.4 passer rating. Remember this is a guy who extolled the Raiders philosophy of pressure football while throwing the ball deep.

However Stabler’s career wasn’t a series of statistics. He was one of the NFL’s most visible and recognizable personalities. He did make four Pro Bowls, was voted NFL MVP in 1974, was All Pro twice, and led the league in touchdown passes on 2 occasions. Furthermore,”The Snake” also was voted to the 1970’s NFL All Decade Team and finished with 194 TDs and 222 interceptions. A trade to the Houston Oilers after the 1979 season ended his stint  in Oakland. However he did go out with a bang:

Before his retirement in 1984, he did play for the late Bum Phillips twice in Houston and with the New Orleans Saints. Yet it was the magic he deftly showed out in Oakland that should have him in Canton. You can’t even pick out the best quarterback/receiver combo from the 1970s. Was it Stabler to Cliff Branch who should be in the Hall of Fame?? Would it be Stabler to TE Dave Casper who is in “the hall”?? No…it has to be the obvious in Stabler to Hall of Famer Fred Biletnikoff…right?? If all of his receivers are in and being considered for the Pro Football Hall of Fame what does that make of the quarterback who helped get them there??

Unfortunately with his passing on Wednesday, we will have to lobby for Stabler to be enshrined posthumously.

For the Pro Football Hall of Fame, I present Kenny “The Snake” Stabler

RIP Ken Stabler (February 2, 1952 – July 8, 2015)