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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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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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.

Tom Flores Belongs In The Hall of Fame

Tom Flores with his team before player introductions in the L.A. Coliseum

When you think of the short list of coaches in NFL History that have won multiple Super Bowls, who comes to mind?? Of course you think of Vince Lombardi, Don Shula, Tom Landry, Chuck Noll, Bill Walsh, or even Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. Throw in Joe Gibbs and his three rings.  Do you realize there are only two eligible coaches that have won multiple Super Bowls that are NOT in the Pro Football Hall of Fame??

Think about it a second, we’re talking about a coach with as many victories as six eligible Hall of Fame coaches and you don’t consider Tom Flores great?? Only Jimmy Johnson,Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh can best Flores in shortest coaching careers who achieved 2 Super Bowl victories.  Landry, and Shula coached 29 and 33 years respectively to achieve the same number of championships.

Tom Flores and Jim Plunkett showing off Super Bowl rings.

For some it’s the fact that his winning percentage of .527 isn’t that high. However Bill Parcells is almost a shoo-in finalist this year with a winning percentage of .570. Also, before his stint as Seahawks head coach, he left the Los Angeles Raiders with a winning percentage of .610 which is better than Bill Walsh at .609. Something to think about.

It’s fair to compare him to Bill Walsh since he is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and coached in the same era. Walsh led the team of the 80’s to 3 Super Bowl wins in San Francisco to Flores’ 2 championships. Yet in head to head competition, Flores Raider’s were 2-1 against Walsh’s 49ers. Now throw in the fact Flores had a better winning percentage before he left for Seattle and it’s hard to argue his candidacy.

After following in the footsteps of another Hall of Fame coach in John Madden, some mistakenly think Flores won with Madden’s guys. Which isn’t close to being true. In today’s market of free agency we’re used to a lot of movement, yet between winning Super Bowl XI (Madden’s team) and Super Bowl XV only WR Cliff Branch and Mark Van Eeghen remained of the skill positions. WR Fred Biletnikoff, QB Ken Stabler, and RB Clarence Davis were all gone. Ken Stabler was traded to the Houston Oilers. He won with (at the time draft bust) Jim Plunkett at quarterback who was with his 3rd team. Stop and think about that.. That’s the equivalent of the Colts trading away  Peyton Manning and bringing in Matt Leinhart and winning the Super Bowl.

Furthermore 9 of the 11 starters on defense for Super Bowl XI were gone by Super Bowl XV. Jack Tatum, Willie Brown, Monte Johnson, all gone with the holdovers being John Matuszak andTed Hendricks. He won Super Bowl XV with a quarterback the world had forgotten about. A little known RB in Kenny King and 14 new players in only his second season as a head coach?? Might be the single greatest coaching performance in NFL history.

Tom Flores and Al Davis receiving the Vince Lombardi Trophy following Super Bowl XVIII

Although winning it all in 1980 was the crowning jewel of a season, his triumph in 1983 should have catapulted him to legendary status. It was his ’83 Raiders that stopped the defending champion Washington Redskins and MVP Joe Theismann dead in their tracks. The ’83 Redskins were the highest scoring team in NFL history and going into Super Bowl XVIII, pundits were hailing them as the best team ever. Yet in a dominant performance the Raiders ushered in the era of the Super Bowl blowout winning 38-9. After that game we had the string of 13 consecutive NFC Super Bowl winners. Yet if you looked at the era from 1980-1996, ONLY Tom Flores won a Super Bowl for the AFC side of the ledger and he did it twice. How is that for impact??

Yet why is he constantly overlooked for his coaching performance when it comes to greatness?? Is it because of the shadow cast by former owner Al Davis?? Even in the NFL Films Super Bowl XVIII video, they lauded Raider assistant Charlie Sumner for the defensive play that put the Redskins hopelessly behind. The Jack Squirek interception for a touchdown to make it 21-3 at the half. Why didnt they give Flores the credit for that move??

Logic tells us that a part of it could be the fact that he’s Hispanic and the sporting press doesn’t view him in the same light as fellow coaches. We hope to be wrong in this assessment yet it’s the ONLY discernible difference between he and every other coach listed above.  Tom Flores, for his career had 97 wins, 87 losses and was 8-3 in the postseason. He had the AFC’s best record (12-4) also in 1985 with MVP Marcus Allen but they were upset in the playoffs by the Patriots. To some, those aren’t great numbers but neither were Joe Namath’s 173 TDs and 220 interceptions and he’s in.

It’s about impact and contribution to the game. Being the only AFC coach to win a Super Bowl in a 17 year period qualifies for impact. Another interesting fact; Of the first 20 Super Bowl winners, his 1980 Oakland Raiders are the ONLY  team that doesn’t have a skill player in the Hall of Fame. Cliff Branch being in there is another argument for another time. Again we call that one of the greatest coaching performance in NFL history. It’s time to give Tom Flores the credit and distinction he deserves.

For induction into the Hall of Fame, I present Tom Flores

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