(EDITOR’S NOTE: To access the Tom Flores interview fast-forward to 24:00 of the attached audio: Ep 8: 2021 HOF Semifinalists; 2020 Turkeys; Conversation w/ Tom Flores | The Eye Test for Two | Spreaker)
Tom Flores knows plenty about the Raiders – whether they’re in Oakland, L.A. or Las Vegas. He played for them, he coached them and he was an analyst for their radio network.
And now … well, now he could be the next Raider to enter Canton.
As the first-ever candidate from the Hall’s Coaches Category, Flores is a finalist for the Class of 2021. But he’s more than that. He’s a heavy favorite to be elected when the Hall’s board of selectors meet in February.
So let’s stay that happens. Then what? Which former Raider would Tom Flores like to see join him in Canton? It’s a good question and one we asked when he appeared on this week’s “Eye Test for Two” podcast.
“Wow,” he said, pausing, “pretty good choices. I love all those guys. I think they all deserve to be in.”
Maybe. But that’s not what we asked. We wanted one name … and one name only. Eventually, Flores provided it.
“I’d have to take Cliff,” he said of Branch. “I took Cliff in as a rookie. I spent a week with him in Colorado when we drafted him – he was running track and getting ready to run in the Olympic trials in the 100 — and he was a track guy that could play football.
“So I nursed him. I held his hand. I spanked him. I hugged him. And he … in his first year … was booed; second year was booed; third-year made All-Pro and from then on it was history. He turned out to be outstanding. If you look at his record … if you look at his playoff record … it’s outstanding. It’s incredible.”
Flores is right about that. Hall-of-Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott called Branch “a nightmare to cover,” mostly because of his world-class speed, and the numbers explain why. Over 14 NFL seasons, Branch averaged 17.3 yards a catch and scored 67 times. He led the league in receiving yards in 1974, and he led it in receiving touchdowns twice, including 1976 when he averaged 24.2 yards per catch.
He was a three-time Super Bowl champion, a four-time Pro Bowl choice, and a three-time first-team All-Pro. Moreover, he showed up big in the biggest games – producing 73 catches in 20 playoff contests for 1,289 yards, five TDs, and an average of 17.7 yards per reception.
“There was fast,” said Flores, “and then there was fast. Cliff Branch was that guy. He was a football player; showed that he was a football player and showed that he could overcome adversity and mistakes.”
Former Hall-of-Fame voter Nick Canepa, columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, covered the Chargers for years and saw plenty of Branch. And he said there was no one the Air Coryell club of the early 1980s feared more.
“Ninety-nine yards he could go,” he said.
In fact, he did in October, 1983, pulling down a Plunkett pass vs. Washington and taking it 99 yards for a score. What Cliff Branch couldn’t do, however, was crack the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He’s been a semifinalist twice and was one of 20 senior finalists for the Hall’s Centennial Class of 2020.
But he failed to make the final cut to 10.