Oakland Raiders receiver Cliff Branch (21) against the Philadelphia Eagles during Super Bowl XV. The Raiders defeated the Eagles 27-10.
Recently the 1976 Raiders were voted as the Greatest Team of All Time on NFL.com. There is little doubt that team earned that distinction. It was jam packed with Hall of Fame players on both offense and defense. I had the pleasure of speaking with one of those Hall of Famers Thursday; Art Shell and I asked him about that team being named the Greatest of All Time.
"Yeah. Yeah, I read NFL.com and I was looking at that and I was excited to see that." Said Shell. "That was a great team. That was a great team. I've always felt that that team could have played with any team in football history and held their own."
But while Shell was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1989, there are still several worthy players on that legendary squad that have never gotten the call. So many that Shell couldn't narrow it down to just one.
"I can't go one player." He said. "There's a couple players. There's Ken Stabler, there's Cliff Branch... that's on the 76 team. Those two guys they come to the top of my head right away. I don't understand why they're not in but they deserve to be in there."
He isn't the only one who continues to be baffled by the omission of Stabler and Branch to their rightful place in those hallowed halls. Many people have wondered about that for years. And the reasons for their being left out also continue to be head scratcher.
"I just think that they're not being looked at in the way they need to be looked at as Hall of Fame players. Ken Stabler was a great quarterback, Cliff Branch was a game-changer as a wide receiver. I mean he really opened things up in the defensive secondary because he could run down the middle of the doggone defense. He could draw anybody and here comes Fred [Biletnikoff] catching a deep pass. And Cliff caught a lot of balls for a lot of yards per catch. So, again, those guys, Cliff changed the game with his speed and of course Stabler was just unflappable as a quarterback."
Branch did indeed change the way the game was played as part of that high-flying Raider defense. He and the Raiders pioneered the concept of the threat of speed to draw extra attention and free up other receivers. Hall of Fame players like Biletnikoff and Dave Casper owe Branch a debt of gratitude for defenders he drew away from them. I am sure they would say the same of Branch as Shell did.
And as Shell pointed out, Branch had a lot of yards per catch. He is among the all time leaders in NFL history in yards per catch. The 1976 season in particular, he went over 1000 yards receiving on just 42 catches. That is just plain incredible. Not only that but at the time of his retirement, he was the NFL all-time leader in postseason receiving yards. He was also on all three Raider Super Bowl winning teams. If that resume is not worthy of the Hall of Fame, I don't know what is.
Stabler was known as the master of the two minute drill. Hall of Fame Raider coach John Madden has said that he would take Stabler over any quarterback in the two minute drill. In his seven seasons as the Raiders starting QB, he never had a losing record. He led the Raiders to the playoffs five straight seasons from 1973-77 and the team never lost more than 4 games during that time. In each of those playoff trips the Raiders made it to the Conference Championship and won the Super Bowl in 1976. Also during that time he was named to the Pro Bowler four times and All Pro once. What most people like to point to when they dispute whether he should be in the Hall is the fact that he has more interceptions in his career (222) than touchdown passes (194).
Others worhty players from that '76 team who didn't immediately come to mind for Shell might be his linemate center Dave Dalby, punter Ray Guy, and safety Jack Tatum.