Cliff Branch’s incredible speed gets him into the Hall of Fame

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Cliff Branch was the epitome of what Al Davis craved in a receiver throughout his decades of career. Raiders.

Branch arrived at Oakland with the incredible speed necessary for the Raiders’ vertical advance, and once he learned to harness that speed and develop reliable arms, Branch was unstoppable.

Branch became one of the best deep threats of his era, and some of his biggest performances came in the game’s biggest scenes to earn a place in the rankings. Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.

“He was a game-changer,” said Hall of Famer coach Tom Flores, who was the Raiders’ wide receivers coach when Branch arrived and was his head coach for seven seasons.

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Cliff Branch of the Oakland Raiders was hit by Bob of the Denver Broncos after he gained nine yards from a pass from quarterback Ken Stabler during the opening period of an NFL football game on December 1.  December 3, 1978 at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California.  Branch was one of the best deep threats of his era, deserving a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Cliff Branch of the Oakland Raiders was hit by Bob of the Denver Broncos after he gained nine yards from a pass from quarterback Ken Stabler during the opening period of an NFL football game on December 1. December 3, 1978 at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California. Branch was one of the best deep threats of his era, deserving a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
(AP Photo/Paul Sakuma, file)

“He had one-of-a-kind speed and a few passes with his speed. I had to teach him how to slow down. It sounds ridiculous, but he tried to run the routes I taught at a fake speed and couldn’t.” He stumbled and was clumsy, so I taught him how to plan. He could plan faster than most people can run. Then, when you need it, turn it on.”

Branch arrived in Oakland as a fourth-round pick in 1972, throwing just 36 passes in his final two years of college in Colorado. But Branch was also a star sprinter who set an NCAA championship record in the 100m shortly before he joined the Raiders.

It was this speed that Davis wanted to pair with future Hall of Famers Fred Biletnikoff and Dave Kasper as Ken Stabler’s pass catchers. But Branch needed a third season.

Flores said he was immediately impressed with Branch’s resilience at center and ability to learn offense, but the only issue that held him back early on was his hands, as frequent falls caused home fans to boo.

“The first year he was impressive and when he was open he was wide open because he was very fast, but then he lost the ball,” Flores said. “But then, in his third year, that’s when he really started to shine. It was all about Al, speed, fear and big players. And he was a big player.”

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Football: Super Bowl XV: Philadelphia Eagles John Bunting (95) in action, defending against the Oakland Raiders Cliff Branch (21) at the Louisiana Superdome.  New Orleans, Louisiana, January 25, 1981

Football: Super Bowl XV: Philadelphia Eagles John Bunting (95) in action, defending against the Oakland Raiders Cliff Branch (21) at the Louisiana Superdome. New Orleans, Louisiana, January 25, 1981
(Photo by Walter Yooss Jr/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

Branch made the first of his three consecutive All-Pro teams in his first season as a starter in 1974 and never looked back. He had 67 airborne touchdowns, leading the NFL in TD receptions in 1974 with 13 and in 1976 with 12. Branch also had a league-record receiving 1,092 yards in 1974.

He was a force in the postseason with 1,289 yards. The Raiders won the Super Bowl after the 1976, 1980 and 1983 seasons – the last in history. Los Angeleswhere the franchise moved in 1982 after protracted legal battles before returning to the Bay Area in 1995. Branch was one of six players to have all three wins, including Hall of Famers Ray Guy and Ted Hendricks.

In 1983, Branch set an NFL record with a 99-yard touchdown in a regular season game. He ranks third among Raider pass catchers in yards with 8,685 yards behind Tim Brown and Biletnikov, both Hall of Famers.

“I’ve had him since day one with the Raiders,” Flores said. “I saw him grow up. I’m so proud of who he has become. He changed the rules of the game.”

Branch’s honor comes just over three years after he died of natural causes at the age of 71, marking the second time in recent years that the great raider has been posthumously inducted into the Hall of Fame. Stabler was inducted in 2016, a year after his death.

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Los Angeles Raiders wide receiver Cliff Branch (R) catches a pass from quarterback Jim Plunkett and returns for 64 yards as Hanford Dixon of the Cleveland Browns defends in the first quarter of the NFL Football Playoffs in Los Angeles, January.  October 8, 1983  Branch was one of the best dangerous players of his time, deserving a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Los Angeles Raiders wide receiver Cliff Branch (R) catches a pass from quarterback Jim Plunkett and returns for 64 yards as Hanford Dixon of the Cleveland Browns defends in the first quarter of the NFL Football Playoffs in Los Angeles, January. October 8, 1983 Branch was one of the best dangerous players of his time, deserving a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
(Photo/AP file)

The long wait robbed Branch of the opportunity to enjoy the honor he had long awaited as a semi-finalist in 2004 and 2010.

“All my peers that I played against and who are in the Hall of Fame tell me that I deserve to be in the Hall of Fame,” Branch said in an interview with the Raiders website shortly before his death. “It’s a crown of glory, just like receiving the Super Bowl ring.”