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 RUNNER UP 1980 PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

As the 1980’s beckoned, many of the teams that Dallas had sat on for the previous decade began to grow anew.  A fresh generation of coaches and players started to internalize the disdain for the bully on the block and began their ascent. It was known that you had to take out Landry’s Cowboys if you really want to be recognized as champions. Although the Redskins were the one with the more acknowledged rivalry, it was the Philadelphia Eagles under Dick Vermeil that got the first crack at the boys from the Lone Star State.

superbowlxv3Much of the animosity started at the beginning of the week, when the Eagles were cast as underdogs against Landry’s Cowboys in the 1980 NFC Championship Game. Although they were hosting, the Eagles were made underdogs by Vegas. Right on cue, the Eagles were being treated as bit role players even though they split their games with Dallas that year.

An upset Dick Vermeil made a declaration that ratcheted feelings up when he vowed “Never allow anyone to take you for granted! I get the feeling the Dallas Cowboys are taking us for granted right now. We’re here because we earned the right to be here. If the Dallas Cowboys are going to take us for granted, we’ll whip their ass!”

To further irk Tom Landry, Vermeil opted to play in their white uniforms forcing the Cowboys to play in the blue jerseys, which they felt were jinxed. Dallas complained to the league office yet for once the powers that be didn’t allow Gil Brandt and Tex Schramm to get their way. The crowd at Veteran’s Stadium was unforgiving as the two teams emerged from the tunnel.  It was 4* and -17* windchill when on the Eagles second play from scrimmage:

The roar of the crowd during Wilbert Montgomery’s touchdown was the loudest ever at Veteran’s Stadium. Cowboy haters everywhere delighted as the Eagles held the early upper hand on the Cowboys 7-0. As the game wore on and Landry’s charges behind 17-7 late in the fourth quarter, they were able to punt and pin the Eagles to their own 5 yard line. From their own 5 yard line the Eagles ended fading hopes for Dallas when in 3 runs Philadelphia moved the football to the Dallas 25. Montgomery was putting the finishing touches on a signature day when he struck with this 54 yard masterpiece.

The Eagles vanquished the Cowboys 20-7 on their way to Super Bowl XV. Wilbert Montgomery etched his name into  Philadelphia lore with a 194 yard rushing performance. They had destroyed the Flex Defense, powering for 263 yards on 40  carries averaging 6.575 yards a pop!! Cowboy haters everywhere rejoiced in hearing Landry, Danny White and Cowboy apologists have to answer the questions as the defeated football team.

super-bowl-logo-1980Until the Philadelphia Eagles win a Super Bowl this will remain the greatest day in the team’s modern history. The ’60 NFL Championship was so long ago, generations of Eagle fans have passed on. Even this proud moment in Eagles history was 34 years ago.  Although they came up short in Super Bowl XV, the win against Tom Landry and the Dallas Cowboys for the NFC Championship was the most memorable gamein team history.

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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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Former Oakland Raider Mike Davis Ready To Part With “Red Right 88” Football

It could have been borne from the comment about The Immaculate Reception football being worth a million dollars from the Football Life series. Or was it simply a scenario where a player has gained enough from a momento from his past?? Whatever the reason, in casual conversation former Oakland / LA Raider Mike Davis has decided to sell the football he has held since the Red Right 88 interception against the Cleveland Browns in the 1980 playoffs.

Mike Davis clutch interception in the 1980 AFC Playoffs saved the Raiders season.

Mike Davis clutch interception in the 1980 AFC Playoffs saved the Raiders season.

To understand the value of the ball you have to understand where it came from. It is from the single play that saved the Raiders season and propelled them to become the first wild card team to win the Super Bowl 3 weeks later. The entire story of Jim Plunkett wouldn’t have been complete without this play.

Head coach Tom Flores, whom we believe should be in the Hall of Fame, wouldn’t have been able to leave the shadow cast by John Madden without it. The 11-5 Cinderella Raiders were riding high after a wildcard win over the Houston Oilers 27-7. They had vanquished former Raider Kenny Stabler, whom they traded before the season. Now they were off to play the AFC Central champion Browns.

What is forgotten is how great the Cleveland Browns of that era were. In 1980 they were great throwing the football. In fact they were ranked 2nd only to the San Diego Chargers of Air Coryell fame. Quarterback Brian Sipe was the NFL MVP in 1980 and Head Coach Sam Rutigliano had just won his second straight Coach of the Year honor. Sipe threw for 4,132 yards 30 touchdowns with just 14 interceptions. Over the 1979 and ’80 seasons they had come from behind to win 14 times in the last 2 minutes. In contrast, Roger Staubach had 23 over his entire career to earn the nickname Captain Comeback.

So the football world was gearing up for an aerial AFC Championship between the Cleveland Browns and the San Diego Chargers. It was to be the changing of the guard from the grind it out Pittsburgh Steelers to the first conquerors of the new passing NFL set up by the rules in 1978 favoring such. The Chargers had vanquished the best defense in football in the Buffalo Bills in one AFC playoff 20-14 on Saturday. Now they awaited the Browns who would play an Oakland Raider team full of unknowns, with a journeyman quarterback and unknown coach on Sunday…

The Raiders escaped the confines of Cleveland Municipal Stadium and rode the wave of momentum into San Diego. They won the AFC Championship 34-27 for the right to play the Philadelphia Eagles for Super Bowl XV. All the while Mike Davis clutched the football that propelled his Raiders into NFL history. He would eventually win two Super Bowls with the team when they came back and dethroned the Washington Redskins in XVIII. There he made another iconic play when from his Strong Safety position blitzed sacking Joe Theismann. It was the final turnover and the famous visual of Theismann slowly walking off. His jersey, half pulled off exposing his shoulder pads and stained by field paint.

Yet it was the famous play in the 1980 NFL playoffs that altered the course of NFL history. NFL pundits were ready to crown Air Coryell as the sucessors to the ground oriented teams that dominated the 1970s. Accolades that were thrown around a year later when San Francisco and their passing offense made it to the top of pro football.

mikedavisfacebookSo what would this football be worth? To Oakland Raider fans?? To Cleveland Brown fans?? To a collector?? To the Pro Football Hall of Fame?? Mike’s question hit me like a ton of bricks and it took me a day to realize that football’s value. You can see a part of the conversation on social media to know that it’s true. You’re hearing about this for the first time.

The first thing Mike, we have to get that your ball appraised and possibly auctioned by one of the memorabilia auction houses. Here at Taylor Blitz Times, we would like to hear from Raider fans what it would be like to own a big piece of Oakland Raider history like this. The Chancellor of Football has an idea what the football would be worth. But lets hear from the professionals who appraise such things first.

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Follow up comment from Mike Davis: MikeDavis&I

The Chancellor with Mike Davis at at the 2015 draft party.

The Chancellor with Mike Davis at at his 2015 draft party.