HENDERSON, Nev. — The stats speak for themselves — 501 career catches for 8,685 yards and 67 touchdowns with four Pro Bowl nods and three All-Pro selections in an era that was anything but friendly to the passing game — but as former Las Vegas Raiders receiver Cliff Branch is about to be posthumously inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there is more to say.
More than simply pointing out that he caught a pass against every team that existed in the NFL between 1960 and 1994. Or that his 6,047 receiving yards from 1974 to 1980 led the NFL in that span, and that he averaged 24.2 yards per catch in 1976. Or that when he retired in 1985, Branch was the NFL’s all-time leading receiver in postseason history with 73 catches for 1,289 yards while winning three Super Bowl rings.
Branch, who died unexpectedly two days after his 71st birthday on Aug. 3, 2019, evolved from speedster — he set an NCAA championship meet record in the 100 meters with a time of 10.0 seconds in the 1972 semifinals and also ran a personal best 20.5 seconds in the 200 meters — to a dangerous all-around receiving threat.
Branch’s coach, Hall of Fame receiving cohort, quarterback and several defensive backs he played against — both on the practice field and on Sundays — shared with ESPN what they believe made the late Hall of Famer one of the most feared and respected receivers of his era.
The Coach: Tom Flores
“You’re in, coach.” — the last text message Branch sent to Flores, after seeing reports of a new coach category for Pro Football Hall of Fame consideration in 2019
FLORES WAS ABOUT to start his rookie season as the Raiders’ receivers coach when the team used a fourth-round pick on Branch in the 1972 NFL draft. Flores remained Branch’s position coach his first seven seasons before becoming the Raiders’ head coach in 1979. Branch, who played through the 1985 season, and Flores, who was the Raiders’ coach until 1987, were intrinsically linked with the Silver and Black.
“When we drafted him, he was thinking of trying out for the Olympics,” Flores said. “He couldn’t come to rookie camp because he strained a hamstring. He was just a pup. A happy guy. Always smiling. Great feet. Great speed. …We had to find out if he was a track man playing football, or if he was a football player.”
Flores said opposing coaches would tell him that Branch was the player they feared the most on a 1970s Raiders offensive roster that included six Hall of Fame players — Branch, receiver Fred Biletnikoff, quarterback Ken Stabler, tight end Dave Casper and offensive linemen Gene Upshaw and Art Shell — along with two HOF coaches (Flores and John Madden).
“There was fast and there was really fast,” Flores said. “He was really fast and he caught the tough balls. They were going to have to adapt to him to keep him from running by them. He was a game changer.”
The Mentor: Fred Biletnikoff
“I learned a lot from him. I see him now and I say, ‘Hey, father,’ and he says, ‘Hey, son.’ He taught me to catch the ball with my hands, not my chest. ‘Reach out and catch the ball,’ he’d tell me, ‘With your hands.’ He still asks me, ‘You catching the ball with your hands?’ ‘Yes, father.'” — Branch, on his relationship with Biletnikoff, in 2014
BILETNIKOFF WAS MIDWAY through his 14-year Hall of Fame career when the Raiders drafted Branch out of Colorado to join his receiver room. The 6-foot-1, 190-pound Biletnikoff had two inches and 20 pounds on Branch but loomed even larger as his mentor.
“In training camp, when he first came in, it was just a matter of, ‘Well, if he’s going to play with us, and be on our team, he has to learn how to catch the football,'” Biletnikoff said. “I really cared a lot about Cliff from the standpoint that I’d seen so many guys with speed on different teams that just didn’t make it, because of the fact that they could never catch the football. And I didn’t want to see that happen to Cliff.
“So we struck up a little pact — every day after practice, we were going to spend time out on the field just catching footballs.”
Biletnikoff said Branch, who caught three passes as a rookie and 19 more in his second NFL season, began catching passes in practice that he would normally drop.
“Then, there’s such a thing as, ‘Yeah, you’re catching the ball, but now there’s times where you’re going to have to come up with some catches with people around you, people on you.’ We just simulated that and he got used to having people around him, people pulling on his arms, people next to him and he learned how to catch the ball with people around him. It kept growing from there until you never worried about him dropping a ball; he was always going to catch it.”
Branch blossomed in his third season, leading the league in receiving yards (1,092) and touchdown catches (13) in 1974 while catching a career-high 60 passes and earning the first of his three straight All-Pro selections.
“Once you have that talent like Cliff did with big-time speed, now the route running you have a bonus because everybody’s worried about you when you have a release on them,” Biletnikoff said. “They’re worried about him going deep, so the routes just fell in place for him. Once he knew how to get release off the line of scrimmage, and learned how to take a hit, a bump, and get back on his route and kept working at it, he became more of a threat.”
The Quarterback: Jim Plunkett
“Jim was our Cinderella Man. His whole history, from growing up poor with blind parents, to winning the Heisman to a rough time in New England and getting released by the 49ers and thinking his career was over. If it wasn’t for Jim Plunkett and his great leadership, we probably wouldn’t have accomplished winning the Super Bowl, let alone two.” — Branch, on winning Super Bowls XV and XVIII with Plunkett as his quarterback, in 2014
BESIDES WINNING A pair of Super Bowls together, Branch and Plunkett will forever be joined at the hip in the NFL record book. Their 99-yard TD pass play at Washington on Oct. 2, 1983, was only the fifth such play in NFL history at the time, the first since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. Now there are 13 such plays.
“Mr. [Al] Davis’ philosophy was we had to find a way to get the ball down the field, not dink and dunk like so many teams do today,” Plunkett said. “Safeties would always favor toward Cliff’s side to help that cornerback out.”
It didn’t matter on that day. Not even with the Raiders already trailing the defending champs 10-0 in the second quarter at a raucous RFK Stadium, Plunkett had thrown three interceptions and the Raiders were inside their own 1-yard line. Plunkett does not remember the exact name of the play, though he does recall it was a play-action fake.
It was first down with the Raiders lined up in 22 personnel, with tight ends Don Hasselbeck and Todd Christensen lined up next to the left and right tackles, respectively, and fullback Kenny King and running back Frank Hawkins split behind Plunkett. Branch was lined up wide left, with Washington surely expecting a run and cornerback Vernon Dean pressing him on the line of scrimmage. After faking the handoff to Hawkins, who picked up middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz with the block, Plunkett dropped back 8 yards into the end zone and lofted a deep ball down the left side, hitting Branch in stride at the 35-yard line.
“I looked up and Cliff was already 8-10 yards past the guy, so I threw it and he took it the rest of the way,” Plunkett said. “I don’t even remember if I got hit. I just saw Cliff running. The cornerback tried to sneak up on him and we just threw it.”
Having blown by Dean, Branch then outraced strong safety Curtis Jordan.
“At about the [Washington] 30-yard line, Cliff’s hamstring caught,” Plunkett said. “He strained it. They still couldn’t catch him. It was a great play on his part. Earlier in his career he’d drop the easy one. Not that one.”
Branch grabbed his right hamstring after the score — his only catch of a back-and-forth game that the Raiders eventually lost 37-35 — and missed four of the next five games with the injury.
“We lost that game, but we had a rematch in the Super Bowl and Cliff caught a [12-yard] touchdown in that game, too.”
Branch caught 11 passes for 161 yards and three TDs in two Super Bowls with Plunkett as his quarterback. And Plunkett said Branch reminded him of another Hall of Fame speedster receiver from the 1960s and 70s — “Bullet” Bob Hayes. But Plunkett said Branch was a better pass-catcher.
“Mostly it was his straight-line speed. He was a track guy, not a hands guy, at first. But he got better and better and better, especially when he started learning how to run routes and how to break and come back. He’d turn a 7-yard catch into a 90-yard gain.”
The competition: CBs Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes, S Ronnie Lott
“That sealed the deal. I thought we could go all the way once we got Mike Haynes.” — a prescient Branch, on the Raiders acquiring Haynes during the 1983 Super Bowl season, in 2014
WHAT MADE BRANCH so dangerous, besides his obvious speed? As he told it, practicing against a pair of Hall of Famers in Willie Brown and Haynes. Branch even made a big impression on a young cornerback who would later become a safety and join Brown and Haynes in Canton in Lott.
“The thing that made him the most dangerous was his speed,” Haynes said. “If I was covering him in a game, when I was with the Patriots, that was my greatest concern. … I knew this was going to be tough every single day in practice, going up against Cliff.
“But the very first practice, he settled me. He settled my nerves. He came out of the huddle and he told me what he was going to do. He said, ‘I’ve got an out.’ And I go, ‘I wonder if he’s messing with me.’ Sure enough, he ran an out. … So as a result, I had a chance to work on my technique, knowing that I didn’t have to worry about him running by me and me looking bad in practice. And it really helped my development. It really made a difference for me.”
Hayes, meanwhile, was more pragmatic about Branch’s effect on games.
“It’s almost impossible for a cornerback, based on flexible speed, to cover him,” Hayes said. “Most speed guys were [simply] vertical guys. But he could run a slant, a go, an out, comeback, post corner. Ninety percent of the time, I’d think he was going vertical, and if he was in single coverage, he’d cut and go deep. Cliff was unleashed.”
Enter Lott, whose first encounter with Branch was in the preseason of his rookie season, 1981, months after Branch had caught a pair of touchdown passes in a Super Bowl XV win over the Philadelphia Eagles.
“[Branch] told me, ‘You can’t catch me.’ He was right. So I told him, ‘I can’t catch you, but hopefully I’ll knock the crap out of you,'” Lott said. “For the Raiders, he was the perfect weapon. Al Davis recognized that to win games you’ve got to have people to make big plays. Al Davis pioneered that element, and it was dangerous. … [Branch] literally changed the game. When he got that extra step, you paid for it.
“I played with the best ever, Jerry Rice, and he would say, ‘It’s about getting open. Guys think it’s so easy to get open, but it’s not. It’s like in basketball, [Golden State Warriors guard] Steph Curry getting open to get that shot off. … That separation that Steph has, is the same kind that Cliff Branch and other Hall of Fame wide receivers had. That quickness, when you see it in Cliff, that’s rare for a wide receiver. Rarely do you see a football player with a basketball player’s quickness, and ability to separate. That was Cliff Branch.”
Haynes developed an off-the-field relationship in Los Angeles with Branch, who shared a home with current Raiders owner Mark Davis down the street from Haynes in Hermosa Beach, California. That Branch is going into the Hall of Fame three years after he died is the epitome of bittersweet.
“Working with him, I always thought he was one of the greatest guys in the NFL and sometimes I feel really bad because when people ask me, ‘Hey, who was the toughest guy to cover?'” Haynes said. “Well, after playing on the Raiders, I didn’t mention any of my teammates. Later, I wondered if that really hurt [his candidacy] because he was definitely one of the toughest guys to cover in the NFL during his days.”