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HOF 2010: Cliff Branch

Posted by Chase Stuart on January 6, 2010

Previous HOF 2010 Bios: John Randle; Roger Craig; Russ Grimm; Steve Tasker; Aeneas Williams; Art Modell; Terrell Davis; Dermontti Dawson; Tim Brown/Cris Carter/Andre Reed; Chris Doleman, Kevin Greene and Charles Haley; Cortez Kennedy; Don Coryell; Ray Guy

In my All-Decade team of the 1970s article, I noted how several wide receivers were very good during that decade but no one receiver truly stood out. Harold Jackson, Cliff Branch, Gene A. Washington, Fred Biletnikoff, Harold Carmichael, Drew Pearson, Paul Warfield, Charley Taylor and Lynn Swann all could make arguments that they were the best receiver of the decade. The Hall has largely ignored the receivers of the '70s, with only Swann (the less said, the better) and players who also starred in the '60s -- Biletnikoff, Taylor, and Warfield -- getting in. Steve Largent, John Stallworth and Art Monk started their careers in the '70s but were really stars of the '80s. The one HOFer whose career should have lined up perfectly in the decade of the '70s was Charlie Joiner, but he wasn't one of the best receivers of the decade (his top two yardage seasons were in the '80s) and is the most glaring error by the HOF committee at the wide receiver position.

It's difficult to see why Branch should be inducted but not Carmichael or Jackson or Washington or Pearson. Why has Branch made it this far when Carmichael and Jackson have more yards and touchdowns? Why Branch when Pearson and Washington have similar production and All-Pro honors? It's difficult to see why Branch deserves the honor of being called a HOFer while his peers who produced just as much and were just as well regarded do not. If they all deserve the honor, it's likely that none of them do, because there's no way the Hall is about to induct five receivers (or more) from the '70s. I'm also surprised Branch got this far this season, because starting in the HOF Class of 2011, Branch will be eligible as a Senior's nominee. Branch has never so much as been a finalist for induction, so perhaps there is some push to get him chosen this year. And while Branch wouldn't be a poor selection, I don't see anything particularly special about his case.

Branch had two huge seasons in his career, which perfectly coincided with the two huge seasons of Ken Stabler's career. In 1974, Stabler led the league in touchdown passes, AY/A, NY/A and ANY/A, while Branch led the league in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. In '76, Branch ranked 2nd in yards per reception, 2nd in receiving yards and first in receiving touchdowns, while Stabler led the league in completion percentage, touchdown passes, yards per attempt, QB rating and net yards per attempt, ranking only 2nd to Bert Jones in ANY/A (while Jones' star receiver, Roger Carr, topped Branch by just one yard to win the receiving title). Stabler and Branch were brilliant those two years, with their accomplishments in '76 leading to a 16-1 record and a Super Bowl championship.

Had they been able to keep up that production, both would have been obvious Hall of Famers. But Stabler would finish in the top ten in ANY/A in only three more seasons, and never again ranked higher than seventh. Stabler isn't in Canton because he only had two HOF-caliber seasons. In 1975, the year in between his big seasons, Stabler's ANY/A and value were down as he ranked 2nd in the league in interceptions and only 9th in passing touchdowns, but he still ranked 2nd in the league in yards per pass. That sort of proficiency as a passer when he wasn't turning the ball over enabled Branch to have a three-year peak: in 1975, Branch ranked 4th in the league in receiving yards and 3rd in receiving touchdowns.

So from '74 to '76, Branch was the best receiver in the league. He was a first-team All-Pro choice by the Associated Press each season, and deservedly so. The NEA, the Pro Football Writers, and Pro Football Weekly all had him as a first-team All-Pro in '74 and '76, too, with the NEA agreeing with the AP by placing him on its 1975 first-team roster. But outside of those three seasons, he never ranked higher than 9th in receiving yards, receiving touchdowns or receptions in any other season. He made the Pro Bowl in 1977, but it was clearly based on reputation and not production (540 receiving yards and 6 TDs, even in the '70s, wasn't noteworthy).

One could make the comparison to Terrell Davis, but Davis played a position with a shorter shelf life and had significantly more post-season success. And, of course, Davis isn't in the Hall of Fame. While it's possible that three great seasons for a receiver could be enough to merit induction, the circumstances would have to be unusual. To the contrary, is it any wonder why Branch's success occurred during these years? Consider the supporting cast Branch was playing with from 1974 to 1976.

He had a 31-33 year old HOF WR lined up across from him, in Fred Biletnikoff. A 28-30 year old HOF LT in Art Shell, and a 29-31 year old HOF LG in Gene Upshaw. In '74, he had HOF Center Jim Otto. He had HOF TE Dave Casper playing alongside him each of the three seasons, although Casper didn't break out until 1976. And he had an in-his-prime Ken Stabler throwing him passes, along with a HOF Head Coach in John Madden. If it wasn't for the Steelers, those Raiders may have won their third straight championship in 1976, instead of their first.

In 1974, Branch went 9-186-1 against the visiting Steelers in the AFC Championship Game, but Pittsburgh would rush for 224 yards and intercept three Ken Stabler passes. The following season the AFC title game moved to Pittsburgh. The Steelers led 3-0 entering the fourth quarter and took a 16-7 lead into the final minute, ultimately winning 16-10. The two teams committed twelve turnovers in a game it seemed no one wanted to win; Branch was held to just one reception for 19 yards until the final seconds of the game. Had those games turned out differently, Branch may have already been inducted, although I'm not sure he would have been much more worthy.

A review of Cliff Branch's career, however, would usually mention that he actually *was* a three-time Super Bowl champion. Branch was still on the Raiders when they won the Super Bowls following the 1980 and 1983 seasons. And that's likely the reason his HOF case has built steam while Jackson, Carmichael, Washington, Pearson (and others) have been largely ignored. But is that fair? Sure he "won two more rings", but at that point he was playing more like Deion Branch on a Super Bowl team than a HOF receiver.

I don't put significant weight on Super Bowl success when analyzing a player's HOF case, although I understand it's necessary at times. But to the extent that we use it, the theory should be that "this player was the reason his team won the championship." And it's not "this player" in the sense that he played well, but rather that he was so much better at his position than most that his team could never have won it without him. The 2007 Giants probably could have won the Super Bowl if they had any number of receivers on their roster instead of Amani Toomer. When the Raiders won the Super Bowl in 1980, Branch ranked 17th in the league in receiving yards, outside of the top 50 in receptions, and outside the top ten in receiving touchdowns.

In the 1980 playoffs, the Raiders defense took over. In three of the four games, Oakland allowed two touchdowns (one in garbage time) and scored one touchdown, while forcing eleven turnovers. In the fourth game, against the one-dimensional Air Coryell Chargers, Oakland won a shootout where Jim Plunkett had a great game (and Branch played pretty well, too).

In the 1983 playoffs, Marcus Allen had one of the greatest post-seasons ever; in three games he scored five touchdowns, averaged over 8 yards per carry, and averaged over 190 yards from scrimmage. The defense and special teams scored three touchdowns, and allowed no touchdowns until they were winning by more than 21 points. Sure, Branch was there and played well, but he was 35 years old and Christensen had become the clear #1 target for the offense, with Allen being the #1 option for the team.

Am I being too harsh? Branch did win these two Super Bowls at the end of his career while he was still playing relatively well. But I have a hard time giving him much credit for winning championships when his skills eroded when at his peak he only one one. It seems like he was more along for the ride then the reason his team won. Had Larry Fitzgerald won the Super Bowl last season, you could understand having that help his cause one day. But if Branch wasn't good enough to be among the best at his position in '80 or '83, I have a hard time inducting him because he helped his team be the best team in the league in those seasons. Should Branch's career be viewed as more favorable because his team re-tooled during the twilight of his career while Torry Holt's teams did not?

Branch hung around for awhile and played well for most of his career. He had a very long run of solid production, but was only elite for three seasons. At the wide receiver position, I just don't think that's enough, especially when many of his peers did so and have not been inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Chances Cliff Branch will make the HOF in 2010? Poor.
Chances Cliff Branch will ever make the HOF? Below average.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, January 6th, 2010 at 10:51 pm and is filed under HOF, Player articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.