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Cliff Branch's Endorsement for the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Posted Aug 4, 2017

Cliff Branch's Endorsement for the Pro Football Hall of Fame by Greg Guglielmo who is the Founder of ELDORADO, a sports analytics website and consulting firm.

Cliff Branch

Clifford Branch Jr. was born on August 1, 1948, in Houston, Texas. He graduated from Colorado in 1972 and was selected by the Oakland Raiders in the 4th round (98th overall) of the NFL Draft.

Branch played his entire 14-year career with the Raiders (1972-1985), spanning 10 seasons in Oakland and four in Los Angeles. The All-Pro wide receiver was a cornerstone of Raiders teams that made seven AFC championship games and won three Super Bowls in the 1970s and 1980s.

Branch has been HOF-eligible since 1991. He was a semifinalist in 2004 and 2010. Many believe he was the best receiver of his era – and the league's best player not yet enshrined in Canton.

Branch played the first half of his career in the worst passing era of the last 60 years – and he was still great. The average team in the 1970s passed for 175 yards per game (YPG), compared with 205+ YPG in the 1960s, 220+ YPG in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, and 250+ YPG today.

Branch shines in career receiving categories – especially when you adjust for era, ranking better than 16 of the 25 receivers in the HOF (including all of the HOF receivers from his era).

Branch was among the game's all-time greats in career receiving categories when he retired – 11th in career receiving yards, 14th in receptions, and 12th in receiving TDs. He's one of only 11 players in the top 75 in career yards who started playing before 1975. Eight are in the HOF.

Branch was considered the best wide receiver of his era. Branch was first-team All-Pro three times. HOF receivers from the 1970s Charlie Joiner, John Stallworth, and Lynn Swann won the honor only once each. Branch would have the 4th-most All-Pro honors among HOF receivers.

Branch was a career winner and three-time Super Bowl champion. He was also part of eight division championships. The Raiders won 71% of their games over his career and went 15-7 in playoff games with Branch. He would own the 2nd-most Super Bowl wins among HOF wide receivers – and join Jerry Rice as the only HOF receivers with 3+ Super Bowls and 3+ All-Pros.

Branch has one of the greatest playoff resumes of all-time. When Branch retired, he was the all-time leader in playoff receptions and receiving yards. He currently ranks 3rd and 9th in the two categories. He's the only historical player near the top of both lists that isn't in the HOF.

Branch was a constant across Raider generations and championship teams. His career bridged Madden to Flores, Stabler to Plunkett, and Oakland to Los Angeles. He won Super Bowls with them all – all while embodying and energizing the spirit of the Raider franchise.

As you review Branch's case, we encourage you to consider his excellence across categories. Few players in history combine elite regular-season and playoff production, All-Pros, Super Bowls, franchise longevity, and the reputation as the best of their era like Cliff Branch does.

I. The importance of "era" when evaluating wide receiver performance

When considering the careers of professional football players, it can be tempting to look at "traditional" career statistics to establish a basic understanding of where a player ranks historically. For wide receivers, this would normally mean receptions and receiving yards.

But players earn their stats in very different eras. The game has changed considerably over time, from rules to season length to offensive and defensive trends. Science, conditioning, and recovery have also evolved, generally affording modern players the benefit of longer careers. To help put the importance of "era adjustment" in perspective, let's take a quick look at two relatively straightforward topics: (1) regular-season length and (2) trends in NFL offense.

The regular season was 10-12 games from 1935 to 1959/1960, 14 games from 1960/1961 to 1977, and 16 games since 1978. Older players played fewer games per season, so their season and career totals are understated compared with players from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.

There's also been a paradigm shift among NFL offenses – passing has exploded and rushing has declined. Older wide receivers didn't just miss out on 16-game schedules (and modern medicine and pass-friendly officiating), they missed out on record levels of passing in the NFL.

Consider this – in Cliff Branch's rookie season (1972), NFL teams averaged 25 pass attempts and 169 passing yards per game. Last season (2016), teams averaged 36 pass attempts and 256 passing yards per game. (Pass attempts per game surpassed rush attempts for good in 1984.)

Let's use Branch's 1976 to bring these "era adjustments" to life even more. That season (14 games), Branch had 1,111 regular-season receiving yards, which equates to 1,270 yards over 16 games. (Branch was a first-team All-Pro, and Oakland beat Minnesota 32-14 in Super Bowl XI).

Last season, 1,270 receiving yards would have ranked 6th in the NFL – a very good result. But don't forget – Branch achieved that total when teams averaged only 173 passing yards per game. Teams today pass for 256 yards per game, or 1.5x the amount they did in 1976. The modern-day equivalent of Branch's 1976 performance is an astounding 1,872 receiving yards.

That's how important it is to consider players in context of when they played. Branch played the first half of his career in the most pronounced low-pass era of the past 60 years – and he was still great. In the next section we'll see how he ranks among Hall of Fame wide receivers.

II. Cliff Branch's career is worthy of the Hall of Fame

Cliff Branch currently ranks 72nd all-time with 8,685 career receiving yards. But as we saw in the previous section, some receivers' totals are hurt by the fact that they played in low-game, low-pass eras, while others are inflated because they played in 16-game, high-pass eras.

A variety of methods exist to level the playing field when evaluating wide receiver performance across generations. The following page uses three common methods to show where Branch ranks relative to the 25 "modern-era" wide receivers (post-1946) that are currently in the HOF.

For example, the ELDORADO method takes a WR's yards-per-game (YPG) average in a season and compares it to the YPG average for top-tier receivers that year (think WR1s). Putting up big numbers when everyone else is doing it isn't so special. But putting up big numbers when few others are doing so (like the 1970s) is special. The ELDORADO method rewards that.

When Branch averaged 79 YPG in 1976, the average for top-tier receivers was only 52 YPG. When Jordy Nelson averaged 79 YPG in 2016, the average for top-tier receivers was 67 YPG. Branch was 52% better than other WR1s. Nelson was only 17% better. ELDORADO runs that math for every player and season in order to produce a "cumulative outperformance" number, which shows how much better a receiver was than his peers, by season over his entire career.

All three methods below take into account the era in which a wide receiver played. On average, Cliff Branch ranks better than 16 of the 25 wide receivers that are in the Hall of Fame. He also outranks all seven of the Hall of Fame wide receivers from his era (highlighted in blue).

Remember, this list only includes HOF receivers since 1946. The gaps in the rankings are populated by pre-modern era "ends," active players, and retired players not in the HOF. There's a similar list in the appendix with traditional stats. Branch compares favorably there, too.

III. Cliff Branch also has Hall of Fame credentials when you look at more familiar stats

The methods shown on the previous page enable comparisons between eras, and they're critical to understanding Cliff Branch's career. As valuable as those observations are, it's helpful to draw our attention back to the more familiar statistics used to evaluate receivers' careers.

When Branch retired in 1985, he was 11th in career receiving yards, 14th in career receptions, and 12th in career receiving touchdowns – among the game's all-time greats in volume categories despite the fact that that the NFL passing game was dead for the most of the 1970s.

Eight of the ten players ahead of Branch in career receiving yards in 1985 are in the Hall of Fame. Branch and those ten players are the only ones currently in the top 75 for career yards who began their careers prior to 1975. (Everyone since has played in high-octane pass eras.)

IV. Cliff Branch has one of the greatest playoff resumes of all time

The Raiders won 71% of their regular-season games over Cliff Branch's 14-year career. They made the playoffs 11 times, won eight division titles, made seven AFC Championship Games, and won three Super Bowls. The team won 15 playoff games and lost seven with Branch.

When Branch retired in 1985, he was the NFL's all-time leader in playoff receptions and receiving yards. (He also scored three Super Bowl touchdowns). Modern players aside, Branch is the only one near the top for both catches and yards that isn't in the Hall of Fame.

V. Branch had Olympic speed – he was the most feared deep threat in the NFL

Memories of Cliff Branch often center on his exceptional speed and downfield playmaking ability. (As beautiful as these memories are, it's possible they sometimes overshadow Branch's entire body of work as a receiver, which we saw in prior sections is among the best all-time.)

Prior to graduating from Colorado, Branch set the NCAA Division I-A record for kick-return touchdowns with eight. The record stands today. A two-sport athlete, Branch also set the NCAA Championship record in the 100-meter dash with a time of 10.0 seconds in the 1972 semifinals. (Valeriy Borzov of the USSR won Olympic Gold that year with a time of 10.1415.)

Branch's speed elicited respect and fear. "The ultimate deep threat," Branch was ranked the 7th-fastest player of all-time by NFL Films. According to Nick Canepa, a longtime Pro Football Hall of Fame voter and 43-year veteran of the San Diego Union-Tribune, "I could not talk to a cornerback in the NFL who didn't think Cliff Branch was the best receiver in the league."

The numbers support these claims. Branch averaged 17.3 yards per reception for his career, a full yard more than other Hall of Fame wide receivers from the 1970s – Charlie Joiner (16.2), John Stallworth (16.2), and Lynn Swann (16.3) – and 1.4 yards above the Hall of Fame average.

So does the prevailing wisdom of the 1970s. Branch was named first-team All-Pro three times – Hall of Famers Joiner, Stallworth, and Swann boast only one first-team nod apiece. If inducted, Branch would have the 4th-most first-team All-Pro selections for wide receivers in the Hall.

VI. A constant across Raider generations and championship teams

On October 24, 1976, Cliff Branch scored on an 88-yard touchdown pass from Ken Stabler, sparking an 18-14 home victory over the Packers, Oakland's third straight win. The winning streak continued through the Super Bowl; they didn't lose again until Week 4 of 1977. The play was the NFL's longest from scrimmage that season. Branch was in the third year of his prime.

On October 2, 1983, Branch took a Jim Plunkett pass 99 yards for a touchdown at Washington. The Raiders lost the game but again went on to win the Super Bowl, this time losing but once more along the way. The play was once again the NFL's longest for the season. This time Branch was a 12-year veteran, 35 years old, and the Raiders had moved to Los Angeles the year before.

The two plays are emblematic of Branch's game-breaking abilities as a wide receiver, both in his prime and through the latter parts of his career. On top of that, they exemplify the degree to which Cliff Branch was a constant across Raider generations and championship teams. Branch's 14-year career bridged the tenures of head coaches John Madden and Tom Flores, quarterbacks Stabler and Plunkett, and the franchise's move from Oakland to Los Angeles.

Branch made five straight AFC title games and won a Super Bowl with Madden and Stabler in Oakland while playing alongside HOF receiver Fred Biletnikoff. He won two Super Bowls with Flores and Plunkett, the first in Oakland with Mark van Eeghen in the backfield and the second in L.A. with Hall of Famer Marcus Allen. Branch was a key player the whole the way through.

"There's only been one wide receiver that's typified the Raiders, and that's been Cliff Branch." That's true in a literal sense – Branch would become the 12th Hall of Fame receiver to play his entire career with one team. And it's true in a figurative sense – Branch's pioneering approach and electrifying style of play at once reflected and energized the spirit of the Silver and Black.

VII. Closing endorsement of Cliff Branch for the Pro Football Hall of Fame

As you review Branch's case, we encourage you to consider his excellence across categories. Few players in history combine elite regular-season and playoff production, All-Pros, Super Bowls, franchise longevity, and the reputation as the best of their era like Cliff Branch does. And as today's Raiders prepare to break new ground in Las Vegas, who better to honor than the man who linked previous generations of Raider greatness, who embodies the trailblazing spirit of the Raider franchise, and whose career has long been worthy of the Hall of Fame.

Career Stats | Cliff Branch and Current Hall of Fame Wide Receivers

This table is intended to serve as a familiar statistical reference point. Like the "era-adjusted rankings" you saw earlier, this list includes HOF wide receivers since 1946 and Cliff Branch. The players are presented in the same order as the previous table to allow for ease of comparison.

Among this group of 25 HOF receivers, Branch is well above the median in terms of playoff production, All-Pro selections, and championships. He is a little shy of the median in career regular-season production and Pro-Bowl selections. But remember, being right around the middle of the pack among HOF receivers is validation that Branch belongs in this group.

In reviewing the list, recall that Branch played the first half of his career in the most pronounced low-pass era of the past 60 years. Receivers in the 1960s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s enjoyed higher pass volumes. And don't forget to consider his stats in aggregate – Branch combines regular-season and playoff numbers, All-Pros, and Super Bowls like few others do.

About the Author | Greg Guglielmo, Founder of ELDORADO

Greg Guglielmo is the Founder of ELDORADO, a sports analytics website and consulting firm. His work has been featured on ESPN's FiveThirtyEight, quoted on ESPN Chalk, and highlighted by the Washington Post. Greg contributed to the Super Bowl 50 economic impact study in San Francisco and conducted an economic impact analysis for a city in Australia, centered on a bid to host the Commonwealth Games. He has an MBA from the University of California, Berkeley and a BA in Government from Georgetown University. Prior to ELDORADO, he spent nearly a decade in financial services. A native of New York, Greg currently resides in San Francisco.