Before Tyreek Hill and Antonio Brown were born, former Oakland Raiders wide receiver Cliff Branch was torching secondaries for a Raiders’ team that once dominated the vertical passing game.
Somehow, even after playing a pivotal role in all three of the Raiders Super Bowl titles over a 14-year NFL career, he passed away on Saturday at the age of 71 without a gold jacket or a bust in Canton. Branch died a Raiders legend and, quietly, a pioneer of the deep passing game, but he never was inducted into the Hall of Fame, which is a shame.
Branch’s numbers may not impress many — he caught 501 balls for 8,655 yards with 67 touchdowns, earning four Pro-Bowl selections — but his numbers don’t tell his story.
He was the lone constant in the golden era of the Raiders franchise, the only offensive player to win all three of the Raiders Super Bowls, doing so with two different quarterbacks. He played in an era that, unlike today, didn’t throw deep or all that often.
He racked up over 1,000 yards receiving twice in his career, in 1974 and 1976, and in both of those seasons, he led the league in touchdown receptions. He also recorded three receptions of 85 yards or more, including a 99-yarder from Jim Plunkett against the Redskins in 1983, the last Super Bowl year for the Raiders. He was 35 at the time, still showcasing his world-class speed.
Branch may be overshadowed by Hall-of-Famer Fred Biletnikoff, but they created one of football’s most dangerous receiving duos, between Branch’s speed and Biletnikoff’s near-perfect route-running ability.
Where his overall numbers may not pop out to some, especially today’s younger generation, Branch averaged 17.3 yards per reception for his career, including 24.2 yards per reception in 1976, the first year the Raiders won the Super Bowl.
In comparison, Julio Jones averages 15.4 yards per catch for his career, Odell Beckham Jr. is 14 yards per catch, and Michael Thomas is 11.8. The aforementioned Hill and Brown average 14.6 and 13.4 yards per catch for their careers, respectively.
In an era where we all focus on gigantic stats and, apparently, not solely the impact someone had on the game, it’s not surprising that Branch isn’t in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. However, on the stats angle alone, Branch has two more career touchdown receptions than Hall-of-Famer Charlie Joiner (63) and achieved that in four fewer years than Joiner.
But the biggest comparison by many for Branch’s case of an overdue induction is Hall of Famer Lynn Swann. Swann won four Super Bowl rings, Branch won three. However, Branch recorded 165 more catches for 3,223 more yards and 16 more touchdowns than Swann did in his career – although it’s worth noting Branch played for five more years.
Swann’s Steelers and Hall-of-Fame teammate John Stallworth is better competition. He caught 36 more balls than Branch (537), but only outdoes Branch in yards by 68 and caught two fewer touchdowns (63) in a 14-year NFL career.
It’s sad that the pioneer of the deep threat didn’t live long enough to see himself get inducted into Canton, because now he probably will be soon, deservedly so. It was the same case with Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016 only after he died the year before.
Branch was a semifinalist in 2004 and 2010. But like many legends, greatness is only appreciated after you’re gone.