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Cliff Branch was the epitome of what Al Davis coveted in a receiver in his consecutive decades the adventurers.
Branch arrived in Oakland with the game-changing speed needed to power the Raiders’ vertical offense and once he learned to harness that speed and develop reliable hands, he couldn’t stop Branch.
Branch became one of the best deep threats of his era with some of his greatest performances on the biggest stages in gaming to earn a place in the Professional Football Hall of Fame Saturday.
“He was a game-changer,” said Hall of Fame coach Tom Flores, who was the Raiders’ receivers coach when Branch arrived and served as his head coach for seven seasons.
“He had one-of-a-kind speed and multiple speeds with his speed. I had to teach him to slow down. It sounds ridiculous, but he was trying to run the routes I was teaching at simulated speed and couldn’t’ He stumbled and was clumsy, so I taught him to slide. He could slide faster than most people could run. Then, when you need to, turn him on.
Branch came to Oakland as a fourth-round pick in 1972 after catching just 36 passes in his final two years at the University of Colorado. But Branch was also a star sprinter who set the NCAA championship meet record in the 100 meters shortly before joining the Raiders.
That speed is what Davis wanted to team up with future Hall of Famers Fred Biletnikoff and Dave Casper as wide receivers for Ken Stabler. But it took until its third season for Branch to break out.
Flores said he was immediately impressed with Branch’s tenacity in the middle and his ability to learn the attack, but the only problem that kept him from playing on the pitch at first was his hands, as the frequent falls resulted in boos from home fans.
“His first year he was impressive and when he was open he was wide open because he was so fast, but then he dropped the ball,” Flores said. “But then, in his third year, that’s when he really started to shine. It was the whole thing with Al, the speed, the fear and the big players. And that was a big player.”
Branch made his first of three straight All-Pro teams in his first season as a starter in 1974 and never looked back. He scored 67 touchdowns through the air, leading the NFL in TD receptions in 1974 with 13 and in 1976 with 12. Branch also had a record 1,092 yards in 1974.
He was a force in the playoffs, with 1,289 receiving yards. The Raiders won the Super Bowl after the 1976, 1980 and 1983 seasons – the last in Los Angeleswhere the franchise relocated in 1982 after long battles in the courts before returning to the Bay Area in 1995. Branch was one of six players to contest those three wins, a list that includes fellow Hall of Famers Ray Guy and Ted Hendricks.
In 1983, Branch tied the NFL record with a 99-yard touchdown catch in a regular season game. He’s third among Raiders pass catchers in receptions with 8,685 yards, behind Tim Brown and Biletnikoff — both Hall of Famers.
“I had him on his first day with the Raiders,” Flores said. “I’ve seen him grow. I’m so proud of what he’s become. He’s been a game changer.”
The honor for Branch comes just over three years after his death at 71 from natural causes, marking the second time in recent years that a Raiders great has been inducted into the Hall of Fame posthumously. Stabler was inducted in 2016, a year after his death.
The long wait robbed Branch of the chance to enjoy the honor he had waited so long for after being semi-finalists in 2004 and 2010.
“All my peers that I’ve played against that are in the Hall of Fame, they tell me I deserve to be in the Hall of Fame,” Branch told the Raiders’ website in an interview shortly before his death. . “It’s crowning glory, just like getting a Super Bowl ring.”