(Photos courtesy of the Oakland Raiders)
By Clark Judge
Talk of Fame Network
If you’d been around the San Diego Chargers in the late 1970s they would’ve told you the best receiver they faced was not Lynn Swann or Dave Casper, both of whom are in the Hall of Fame. Nope, it was the Raiders’ Cliff Branch, and don’t look for him in Canton.
He’s not in, and don’t ask me why.
Branch is what San Diego Union-Tribune columnist and Hall-of-Fame selector Nick Canepa calls “the best player not in the Hall of Fame,” and he won’t get an argument from those Chargers. Branch was one of the league’s most dangerous, most explosive and most dynamic deep threats, a guy who one season averaged … averaged … 24.2 yards per catch.
Think about that for a moment. He had 46 receptions which, in today’s game of inflated receiving numbers, is a pretty good month. But with those 46 catches he had 1,111 yards. Now, compare that to the NFL’s top 40 receivers in yardage in 2014, when only one (DeSean Jackson at 20.9) averaged more than 16.4 yards per catch, and maybe now you can appreciate that greatness that was Cliff Branch.
He was fast. He could catch. And he knew how to beat you, leading the league in touchdowns twice in three seasons. When you wonder why Al Davis believed so strongly in the vertical passing game, look no farther than guys like Cliff Branch and Warren Wells.
Neither is in the Hall, though I understand why with Wells. While he averaged a whopping 23.1 yards per catch for his career – including 26.8 in 1969 when Darryle Lamonica was his quarterback – he played only five seasons. OK, so he was radioactive for three of them – leading the AFL in touchdown catches one year and in yards receiving the next – but, like it or not, longevity is a factor that can determine a Hall-of-Fame candidacy.
And if you don’t believe me ask Terrell Davis.
In Branch, however, there are no issues with a brief career. He played 14 seasons with the Raiders, and he was marvelous for most of it. In fact, he was so good he was named to the league’s All-Pro team four consecutive years. But he wasn’t named to an all-decade team that included Swann, and, since we’re on the subject, let’s compare the two.
Branch had more catches, 501-336, and more yards receiving, 8,685-5,402. He had more touchdowns, too, 67-51, and averaged 17.3 yards per reception to Swann’s 16.3. Yeah, OK, so Swann retired early. And, yes, he was a part of four Super Bowl champions, and that was factored in his election.
But look at Branch: He was part of all three of the Raiders’ Lombardi Trophy winners. Furthermore, he had three touchdowns in those games. So the only area where he falls short is rings. Yet he’s only one behind.
Look, I’m not here to say Lynn Swann doesn’t belong in the Hall because he does. But look at Branch’s numbers. No, better yet, look at him play. Talk to defenders who had to cover him at the peak of his career … because they couldn’t. It was an era when there weren’t a lot of game breakers at wide receiver; when teams ran the ball far more than they threw it, averaging 12.8 completions per game in 1977 and 37.4 runs. So you had to make those completions count, and Lynn Swann did.
But so did Cliff Branch.
Then why isn’t he in Canton? I wish I knew. Bad enough that he hasn’t been a finalist. Worse that he’s been a semifinalist – meaning a top-25 choice – only twice, and, sorry, but I don’t get it.
Some people tell me he and quarterback Ken Stabler are collateral damage suffered for having so many Raiders from the 1970s – a team that won one Super Bowl – in the Hall of Fame, but that’s not good enough. You’re either good enough to be in Canton, or you’re not.
And Cliff Branch is.
So let’s get his case in front of the voters, and let them tell us why he’s not Hall-of-Fame worthy. I know a lot of former Chargers who would be interested in their answers. So would I.