The Cliff Branch Dilemma

Cliff Branch is Canton-worthy -- but are the 1970s Oakland Raiders worthy of 12 Hall of Fame players?
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Cliff Branch carved out a career worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. But I have a problem with his candidacy.

My concern has less to do with Branch himself, though, than with the team whose colors he wore – the Oakland Raiders. Specifically, the 1970s Raiders.

Branch was one of the great deep threats of the 1970 decade. He posted two 1,000-yard seasons back when they were considered a notable achievement -- back when receivers found themselves in hand-to-hand combat with defensive backs, having to fight for every inch of space in their pass routes. Back then cornerbacks could jostle receivers 10-15-20 yards downfield – as long as the contact ended by the time the pass was airborne.

In 1974, Branch caught 60 passes for 1,062 yards on the way to his first Pro Bowl. He averaged 18.2 yards per catch and scored an NFL-leading 13 touchdowns. In 1976, he caught 46 passes for 1,111 yards on the way to his first Super Bowl ring. He averaged 24.2 yards per catch and scored a league-leading 12 touchdowns.

The Raider Nation will tell you it was Branch’s speed that made the offense go. How fast was he? Fast enough to set the NCAA championship meet record with a 10.0-second clocking in the 100-meter dash in 1972. He brought speed to the football field that would scare any defense.

“Clifford was one of our greatest players – maybe our greatest, certainly our most valuable,” Hall of Fame owner Al Davis once told me. “He was the big gun.

But Branch’s 25-year window of modern-era eligibility expired in 2015 without him ever being discussed as a Hall of Fame finalist. He’s now in the abyss that is the senior pool. How did this happen? If Branch was indeed the key to the Oakland offense, why were seven of his offensive teammates from the 1970s enshrined in Canton ahead of him, including the team’s two other primary pass catchers -- wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff and tight end Dave Casper?

Taking it a step further, there are 11 Raiders from the 1970s already enshrined in Canton. This from a team that went to only one Super Bowl in the decade. The Pittsburgh Steelers went to – and won – four Super Bowls in the 1970s. Yet those Steelers have only 10 players with busts in Canton. If Oakland had a more talented cast plus two coaches (John Madden and Tom Flores) in the Hall of Fame from the 1970s, why didn’t the Raiders win those four Lombardi Trophies and the Steelers just the one?

The potential enshrinement of Branch would put 12 Raiders from the 1970s in the Hall. That would match the record number of Hall of Famers from one team -- 1960s Green Bay Packers, who went to six NFL championship games in the decade and won five of them, including the first two Super Bowls.

If and when Branch gets a bust, a campaign will undoubtedly be launched to get a 13th Raider from the 1970s in Canton – cornerback Lester Hayes, who has already been a Hall of Fame finalist four times. And there has even been chatter about a 14th Raiders from the decade, safety Jack Tatum.

No doubt, the Raiders were a good team in the 1970s, winning 100 games. But both the Cowboys and Dolphins won more games and more championships than the Raiders that decade – the Cowboys a decade-leading 105 games and two Super Bowls and the Dolphins 104 games and two Super Bowls. Yet the Cowboys have two fewer Hall of Famers (nine) than the Raiders and the Dolphins five fewer (six).

The 1980s San Francisco 49ers were a great team, winning 104 games and four Super Bowls. Yet those 49ers have only five players enshrined in Canton. The 1990s Cowboys were also a great team, winning 101 games and three Super Bowls. Yet those Cowboys have only six Hall of Famers.

Were the 1970s Raiders the most talented team of all time? With 12 Hall of Fame players plus two coaches enshrined in Canton, they would need to be included in that discussion along with the Paul Brown Cleveland Browns, the Vince Lombardi Packers. But do those Raiders belong in that discussion? At some point, talent must translate into championships.

Let me repeat -- Branch has Hall of Fame credentials. But can you enshrine every starter from a team that managed to reach only one Super Bowl in the entire 1970 decade?

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Rick Gosselin has covered the NFL for 48 years for United Press International, the Kansas City Star, and the Dallas Morning News. He has covered the Detroit Lions, New York Giants, Kansas City Chiefs, and Dallas Cowboys. He has been a Hall of Fame voter for 25 years and, in 2004, won the Dick McCann Award for "long and distinguished reporting on professional football. He is a living legend in the NFL and you can read him at Talk of Fame Network and find him on Twitter at @RickGosselin9