One of the signature, recurring highlights from the NFL in the 1970s was Ken Stabler throwing a deep touchdown pass to Cliff Branch, who had left a cornerback far behind on his way to the end zone.
Unfortunately, the two Oakland Raiders teammates were connected in a different way. Stabler and Branch died before they finally got their recognition from the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Stabler was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2016, months after his death. Branch died in 2019. Three years later, he got his Hall of Fame call from the senior committee.
"I think he would cry," Elaine Anderson, Branch's sister, told the Canton Repository. "I know he would cry."
Longtime Raiders fans who remember how Branch helped define an era for the franchise have to be pleased the wait is over, even if the call came too late for Branch to enjoy it.
Cliff Branch was a star for Raiders
The Raiders were a great team in the 1970s and the early 1980s, and Branch was a common thread for all three of the franchise's Super Bowl championships.
That's not just coincidence. Al Davis' Raiders wanted to throw it deep, and Branch fit that attack perfectly. Branch was a fourth-round pick out of Colorado in 1972 and it took a couple years for his career to take off. But in 1974, he became a star.
Branch led the NFL with 1,092 yards and 13 touchdowns in 1974. He averaged 18.2 yards per catch. Branch added 270 more yards and two touchdowns in the playoffs that season. He'd be a mainstay for the Raiders for the decade that followed.
The Raiders won a Super Bowl at the end of a fantastic 1976 season. Branch was first-team All-Pro for the second time that season, leading the NFL again with 12 touchdowns. He averaged 24.2 yards per catch that season. He and Bob Hayes of the Dallas Cowboys were the premier deep threats in the NFL and they helped redefine the game. The success of Branch, Hayes and others on deep passes helped coaches reimagine the passing game.
Branch was a game-changer, and his deep speed made the NFL fun to watch.
Branch won three Super Bowls
The Raiders of the 1970s only won one Super Bowl, but that had a lot to do with playing in the same era as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Miami Dolphins. Branch was around to win two more Super Bowls in the 1980s, after Stabler had moved on.
With Jim Plunkett throwing the ball, Branch was a part of championship teams in 1980 and 1983. In 1983, Branch caught a 99-yard touchdown pass against Washington. It is one of 13 99-yard receptions in NFL history. Branch was 35 years old at the time.
Branch's speed was elite late into his career and late into his life as well. The Canton Repository said Branch claimed he could run a 4.6-second 40-yard dash at 69 years old.
Branch retired after the 1985 season. He spent all 14 of his pro seasons with the Raiders. His numbers don't look as impressive given the explosion of receiving statistics in today's game. Branch never had more than 60 catches in a season. Perhaps that's why it took more than 35 years after his retirement to get into the Hall of Fame. But his ability to beat a defense deep impacted many Raiders wins for more than a decade. Statistics could never do Branch's career justice, especially decades later as the NFL evolved.
Branch was a big part of Raiders history, and NFL history as one of the greatest deep threats ever. Like plenty of cornerbacks who tried to keep up with Branch through his career, the Hall of Fame was just a step slow in recognizing his place in the game's history.