Is the NFL Hall of Fame Tree Missing a Branch?

I was going through the NFL Network’s America’s Game marathon on my DVR July 4th weekend, deciding which of the 48 hours of programming was worth recording. Truth be told, all the episodes were worth recording and I’ve added the America’s Game box set to my Christmas list because I couldn’t record them all. One of the first episodes I watched was the Super Bowl XI episode with the 1976 Oakland Raiders. What impressed me most were the highlights of Kenny “The Snake” Stabler throwing bomb after bomb to Cliff Branch. I’m a San Francisco native, but I wasn’t born until two years after Super Bowl XI. The Raiders had moved to Los Angeles by my football formative years, so there is a bit of a disconnect between me and those great Raiders teams. However, my mom was a Raiderette during the ‘60s and those ‘70s-early ‘80s Raiders were so good you’d think there would be some lingering tales of greatness, yet I don’t recall hearing much about Cliff Branch at all in my youth. Recently, I’ve heard my father-in-law talk about how Branch could catch anything (and the stick’em) and I would smile and nod politely, but really, I was clueless. I’d heard of other great Raiders from those ‘70s teams: Stabler, Upshaw, Shell, Otto, Tatum, Atkinson, Hendricks and Biletnikoff, but not Branch. The America’s Game 1976 Raiders episode piqued my interest and I decided to dig deeper and find out what kind of player Branch was why he isn’t in the Hall of Fame.

When I first looked up Branch’s stats I began to think the NFL Films editors had done their best to embellish Branch’s impact. Branch’s stats seemed rather pedestrian with a career high of 60 receptions and only 46 receptions in and All Pro 1976 season. In 2008, Ike Hilliard, Warrick Dunn and Brandon Stokely all caught more than 46 passes and I know how “good” those guys are. But, that’s the problem you run into when you compare different eras. In 1976, teams played a 14 game schedule with the average offense passing for 2100 yards while today’s schedule is 16 games and the average team gained nearly 3400 yards passing in 2008. In 1976, Branch’s 46 receptions were only good enough for 19th in the league, but he gained 1111 yards on those 46 receptions, one yard short of the league leader and more than doubling the yardage of Branch’s Hall of Fame teammate and Super Bowl XI MVP, Fred Biletnikoff. It was obvious that what separated Branch from his peers was his ability to create big plays over and over again. He was second in 1976 with an excellent 24.2 yards per catch and tied for first with 79.4 receiving yards per game. Cliff Branch was an impact player on a great team with numerous Hall of Famers on it, including two guys Branch was competing with for receptions, Biletnikoff and Dave Casper. Why was Branch left out of the Hall of Fame? Could it be the ever popular anti-Raiders bias? I don’t think so. Seven Raiders from the Super Bowl XI championship team are already enshrined in Canton. Maybe Branch was just really, really good, but not Hall of Fame great? I need to know how Branch stacked up against his Hall of Fame contemporaries.

The following table compares the statistics of Branch against 11 of his contemporaries in five categories: Receptions, Receiving Yards, Yards per Reception, Receiving Touchdowns and Receiving Yards per Game. I had a hard time deciding which players to compare. Offensive and defensive strategies constantly change over time in the NFL causing statistics to fluctuate. The decade before the AFL/NFL merger in 1970, the average team passed for 2,554 yards a season and the following decade (1970-1979) the average team passed for a slightly lower 2,250 yards per season. But, the next decade, 1980 through 1990 (not counting ’82 strike year), the AVERAGE team passed for 3,229 yards, almost 1,000 yards more than the previous decade. I want to compare players whose careers overlapped the same time period as Branch’s career, the 1970’s leaking into the early ‘80’s when passing increased significantly league wide.

Top 11 Career Leaders Receiving Yards plus Lynn Swann
Receivers drafted 1967-1975

Name(seasons)

Recs

Yards

Yds/Rec

TDs

Yds/G

Charlie Joiner(1969 -’86)*

750

12146

16.2

65

50.8

Harold Jackson (1968 -’83)

579

10372

17.9

76

49.9

Harold Carmichael (1971 -’84)

590

8985

15.2

79

49.4

John Stallworth(1974 – ’87)*

537

8723

16.2

63

52.9

Cliff Branch(1972 -’85)

501

8685

17.3

67

47.5

Haven Moses (1968 – ’81)

448

8091

18.1

56

40.7

Drew Pearson (1973 -’83)

489

7822

16.0

48

50.1

Nat Moore (1974 -’86)

510

7546

14.8

74

41.2

Ken Burrough (1970 -’81)

421

7102

16.9

49

45.5

Isaac Curtis (1973 -’84)

416

7101

17.1

53

42.5

Reggie Rucker(1970 – ’81)

447

7065

15.8

44

44.4

Lynn Swann (1974 – ’82)*

336

5642

16.3

51

47.5

* - Hall of Fame

The first thing I notice is the similarity of the elite receivers of this era. Nine of the twelve receivers gained between 7,000 and 9,000 yards. They all reached between 15 and 18 yards per receptions and gained 40-50 yards per game. Originally, I put Swann in the mix to show how low his career totals were, but his Yds/Rec, Tds/G and TD total help put perspective on the lesser receivers who played more seasons than Swann. Statistics will only get you so far on the road to Canton anyways. Extra-curriculars like Pro Bowls and Super Bowls are what separate the very good from the great. To try and pare down the list above and separate the elite from the very good, the next chart uses the same categories, but gives points for finishing top 10 in the league in a category, 3 points awarded for finishing in the top three and one point awarded for finishing fourth through tenth. I don’t know how to quantify Pro Bowl/All Pro selections or Super Bowl appearances other than just to list them let them speak for themselves.

Name

Pro
Bowls

All
Pros

SB
W-L

100 yd
Games

Top 10
Recs
(a)

Top 10
Yards
(b)

Top 10
Yds/Rec
(c)

Top 10
TDs
(d)

Top 10
Yds/Gm
(e)

Total
(a-e)

Harold Jackson

5

1

N/A

31

6

11

13

6

8

44

Cliff Branch

4

3

3-0

25

2

8

9

11

7

37

Harold Carmichael

4


0-1

21

4

6

1

12

4

27

John Stallworth

4

1

4-0

30

3

8

1

7

7

26

Ken Burrough

2


N/A

14

1

7

5

3

7

23

Charlie Joiner

3

1

N/A

29

3

5

3

3

5

19

Lynn Swann*

3

1

4-0

13

2

3

1

7

3

16

Nat Moore

1

1

0-1

12

1

1

1

4

2

10

Haven Moses

2


0-1

17


1

6

2


9

* - Super Bowl MVP

Now, we start to get a clearer picture of which receivers were consistently performing at an elite level over multiple seasons. Swann played only nine seasons in the NFL including a non-descript rookie season and a strike-shortened final season, but his play was consistently better over a shorter career than Moore and Moses. Charlie Joiner had more than 2,500 yards receiving than his peers, but his consistency over a long career was also buoyed by an Air Coryell offense with Hall of Famers Dan Fouts and Kellen Winslow. Meanwhile, Branch is tied for the second most Pro Bowls among this group and he has most All Pro selections and an undefeated 3-0 Super Bowl record. You can’t underestimate the importance of the post season to Hall of Fame voters, either. Take Harold Jackson for example. He’s got over 10,000 yards receiving, 76 career touchdown receptions and thirty-one 100-yard receiving games, but he only played in 10 career playoff games and never reached a Super Bowl and is not in the Hall of Fame. Branch, on the other hand, had both regular season and post season success and his playoff numbers compare favorably with the two Steelers Hall of Famers.

Career Playoff Statistics

Receiver

Games

Recs

Yards

TDs

Yds/Rec

Cliff Branch

19

73

1289

5

17.7

Lynn Swann

16

48

907

9

18.9

John Stallworth

17

57

1054

12

18.5


The two Steelers definitely made the most of their opportunities in the playoffs, and performed even better in the Super Bowl, but Branch was no slouch either. While he wasn’t able to match Swann and Stallworth’s Super Bowl receiving totals, he did match them with three Super Bowl touchdowns. One might argue (RT) that Branch’s success was due solely to the immense talent around him and he benefitted from some kind of Second Banana success, but that’s wrong. Branch finished first or second in receptions on his team from 1974-1981 and only finished third when the Raiders were trying to get the ball to some guy named Marcus Allen. If you try and use the Second Banana reasoning to explain away Branch’s Hall of Fame credentials, you have to explain why not Stallworth or Swann as well? Instead of a Hall of Fame tight end, the Steelers Hall of Fame quarterback passed a lot to their Hall of Fame running back, Franco Harris. Or, explain why Charlie Joiner’s Hall of Fame credentials didn’t take a hit from Second Banana success in a pass heavy offense led by Hall of Fame talent at quarterback and tight end?

I didn’t live through Cliff Branch’s career and can only base my opinions on the numbers and the work of NFL Films, but Branch deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Across the board, Branch’s credentials are similar or better than his receiving contemporaries, even those already in the Hall of Fame. He won three Super Bowls while excelling in both the regular season and the post season. He was a key piece of the Raiders’ offense for eleven straight seasons and put up great numbers while sharing touches with the likes of Fred Biletnikoff, Dave Casper, Todd Christensen, Ray Chester, Bob Chandler, Mark Van Eeghen and Marcus Allen. Branch’s ability and contributions need to be recognized with the highest individual honor: a yellow jacket, a speech and a bronze bust in Canton, Ohio.



6 comments:

  1. Chase Says:

    http://www.pro-football-reference.com/blog/?p=1486

    I've got Branch at #27 all-time, which gives him a decent but not great HOF case. Obviously you can quibble with my metrics; I'm not sure if my formula is biased in favor of or against Branch, though.

  2. Koski Says:

    I like your rankings and p-f-r.com's new similarity scores has Branch ranked with Warfield and Stallworth, which I think is fair. Now, Branch isn't a Top 10 all time WR, but his numbers +SB rings should put him in the HOF.

  3. Chase Says:

    Only one of Branch's Super Bowls came during his prime years, and Super Bowls is a silly way to measure receivers (and all players), anyway.

    If you want to say he was a better receiver than Biletnikoff, Stallworth, Swann or Charlie Joiner, and therefore he should be in the HOF, fine. But you're going to have to let in a bunch of wide receivers that way. The standard for induction isn't (and shouldn't be) whether or not a player is better than the weakest players currently in the Hall.

    I would argue for Harold Jackson before Branch; Taylor and Branch have very similar resumes; Ellard and Herman Moore could make good cases, as could Del Shofner.

    The bigger problem is the not yet eligible guys. Jimmy and Rod Smith, not to mention the active guys (Moss/Harrison/Owens/Holt, Steve Smith, Hines Ward, etc.)

  4. Koski Says:

    My argument re: Branch/SB rings is that Branch has the reg. season numbers AND Super Bowl rings. I agree that SB rings is a silly way to justify induction, but it seems to be the reality, see Swann.

    I agree that Harold Jackson has better numbers than Branch and surprising numbers overall and probably deserves to go to Canton.

    I think the biggest issue when deciding HOF or not, at least for WRs, is the problem of comparing eras. During the '70s, the leading passers year to year were in the low 3,000 range. In the '80s, it started to hit the low 4,000s. Jimmy Smith/Rod Smith/ Torry Holt, TO, etc. have awesome numbers, but the era is a passing dominated era and they should be compared as such.

    Thoughts?

  5. Chase Says:

    I agree that comparing across eras is difficult. In the link I showed, I adjusted for era, and guys like Holt and Jimmy Smith (and certainly TO) still blow Branch out of the water. Even Rod Smith beats Branch out after adjusting for era, although not by much.

  6. Koski Says:

    All good points. Looks like Branch is borderline HOF, at best. It's easier to distinguish between Jimmy Smith, Rod Smith, T.O. and Torry Holt because I've seen them play their entire careers while I've only seen highlights of Branch.

    Who would you put in the HOF between Smith Smith TO and Holt?

    I'd go Holt & TO.