Ex-Raider running strong

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Cliff Branch, a man who used world-class speed to excel at pro football — his career with the Raiders featured four All-Pro selections at wide receiver and three Super Bowl titles — was at the Petaluma Outlet Mall in a lineman’s stance.

His balance was perfect. If you didn’t know what was happening, you might have thought he was about to fire out and hit someone.

“Back in the day, offensive linemen got down, like this here,” Branch said. “And they’re gonna drive block.”

Branch, the 5-foot, 11-inch, 170-pound wide receiver out of the University of Colorado, did fire forward, but he stopped, just as both his arms had swung forward with all the force his momentum had provided.

“Back in those days, guys would rip you with their shoulders and their arms,” Branch said. “Everything is with their hands now.”

Branch, 69, was at National Sports Memorabilia, a new addition to the Petaluma Village Premium Outlets, when he took a break from signing autographs to talk about his life in football. Branch has strong ties to Sonoma County; he lived in Santa Rosa for 26 years, and his house was lost in the Tubbs fire.

He and Hall of Fame corner back Willie Brown will be back at the store to sign autographs Friday.

Branch is still a Raider — he attends every game and travels on the team plane — and his playing career was during a time when the National Football League started changing its rules to create the game we have today.

Branch won a Super Bowl with legendary coach John Madden and the late owner of the Raiders, Al Davis. Now, with Al’s son, Mark, in charge, Branch craves another Raiders title, ideally before the franchise, along with Branch, moves to Las Vegas.

Branch’s life as a Raider started with a world-class sprint.

He ran the 100 meters in 10 seconds flat in the 1972 NCAA Track and Field Championships, and Raiders wide receivers coach Tom Flores was there to see it.

“When I was drafted by the Raiders in ’72, Tom Flores was sent out by Al Davis to give me the playbook,” Branch said. “He spent a whole week with me. The next week, that’s when I ran the 10 flat.”

Flores was Branch’s position coach and then head coach, when Flores was picked by Davis to lead the Raiders after John Madden retired in 1978.

“Under his teaching I made All-Pro for four straight years. In 1974, 1975, 1976 and 1977,” Branch said. With Madden as head coach, the Raiders won their first Super Bowl title on Jan. 9, 1977, beating the Minnesota Vikings 32-14, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

Branch said the transition from Madden to Flores was seamless because Flores was an insider. By that time, John Madden, along with Al Davis, had already established the Raiders’ culture.

“(Madden) always said guys I’ve got three rules. Be on time for meetings when you come to work. Pay attention in meetings when we’re explaining the game plan. And the third was go like hell on Sundays. Other than that, they gave us a lot of rope, man.”

During Raiders training camp in Santa Rosa, the team would routinely check in for curfew at 11 o’clock, but Madden would hear cars leaving the parking lot at about 11:30. It was the Raiders, headed out to party some more.

“Every night after curfew, we’d leave. He didn’t care,” Branch said. “He’d just say ‘guys, can you at least wait an hour after we check before you start leaving?’ That’s the kind of coach he was. Because he knew he had great players and they were going to play hard on Sunday.”

As for Al Davis, Branch recalled an owner who was hands-on and loved his players. Davis would be at practice every Wednesday and Thursday, and even jump in and coach from time to time. His door was always open to his team, according to Branch.

And Davis was a revolutionary when it came to acquiring talent.

“Al Davis was doing free agency before free agency came about, because he was able to get cast-off players that had issues with other teams,” Branch said. “They all came in and played a role. And that was the key, to come in, be unselfish, add to our team, in certain areas, and play as a role, and it helped us win three super bowls.”

The Raiders won the Super Bowl after the 1976, 1980 and 1983 seasons.

Al Davis drafted Branch in the fourth round of the 1972 draft, and the wide receiver was one of his best picks ever. Branch is one of only six Raiders with three Super Bowl rings, and he brought the world-class speed that the Raiders became known for.

“Oh man, you could see the fear that a defensive back had when he had to line up against me. Either he was going to play 10 yards off, or if he played tight coverage, then I was going to have to release and get beyond him,” Branch said.

Branch averaged a career-best 24.2 yards per reception in 1974, when he led the league in touchdowns with 12. His career average per catch was 17.3 yards.

And Branch performed well in big games. When he retired, he was the NFL’s all-time leader in postseason catches and yards. He’s still third in yardage, behind only Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin.

Branch’s numbers are enhanced when you consider the NFL rule changes in the late 1970s. In 1978, for the first time, defensive backs could only hit a wide receiver within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage.

That rule (along with a rule that allowed linemen to extend their arms and open their hands while pass-blocking) helped transform the NFL from a running game to a passing game.

“Oh my God, it would be a blast to play today,” Branch said. “To get your hands on the ball, and then the run after catch, you know with the speed that I had, it would be a joy.”

Another thing that has changed in the NFL is the focus on concussions. Branch says that players are bigger and faster, and that the NFL helmet, while padded more heavily, allows for more physicality.

“It’s a weapon man, and then the force behind these athletes, it’s unbelievable,” he said.

Branch placed an authentic helmet from his early days next to a modern helmet. The difference in size was unmistakable.

Would a player be less likely to lead with his head in the older, smaller helmet?

“Oh, without a doubt.” said Branch.

While Branch said that a more robust helmet isn’t helping matters, rule changes for safety, like the end of the peel back (blindside) block, is another matter altogether.

“You got to have safety, man,” Branch said. “Because you know, you got life after football. The game is so physical and so violent, you want players to have a quality of life after the game.”

While some football fans, along with some NFL veterans, according to Branch, detest the NFL’s new safety rules, Branch still loves to watch football. He regularly watches a recording of the Raiders game after he gets home from the stadium. He’s watched the Raiders go 6-8 so far in 2017.

“There was a lot of talk about the Raiders maybe going to the Super Bowl, but that was a lot of noise that didn’t hold up over the regular season,” Branch said.

Branch pointed to the Raiders’ struggles on offense, but his bottom line was defense.

“Good teams have defenses that cause turnovers, and you get short field position,” said Branch. “That’s the mark of a Super Bowl team.”

Branch meets with Raiders owner Mark Davis at least once a week during the season. Davis, who has run the Raiders since 2012, has said he wants to bring another Super Bowl title to Oakland before the Raiders leave town; the team has broken ground on a new stadium in Las Vegas that is set to open in 2020.

“Yes (Mark’s) excited about that, but you know, we’re still in Oakland and there’s a lot of respect for the fans of Oakland and we still got a job to do in Oakland,” said Branch.

While Branch has moved on from the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa and bought a luxury apartment in Dublin, he plans on moving to Las Vegas when the Raiders do.

“A state of the art football stadium. Raiders Stadium. No sharing it with a baseball team,” Branch said. “No more playing on a baseball diamond.”

Even though Mark Davis’ Raiders fell short in 2017, Al’s son is the right person to guide the franchise, according to Branch.

“He’s just like Al,” Branch said. “He knows the game, and he knows that he needs to be a little more hands-on. That’s going to be the next step for him.”

The next logical step for Branch is the NFL Hall of Fame. Branch has been long overlooked; his numbers are better than some of his Hall of Fame contemporaries. Branch was almost voted in by the Senior Committee this year, and he’s encouraged.

“I was real close, and I truly believe it’s going to happen, I think about 2019, 2020,” Branch said. “Madden said it’s going to happen, so you got to be patient, patient and stay alive.”

Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler once said that Branch could “outrun the cars on the interstate.” Branch sprinted to the Raiders franchise and never looked back.

“Oh man, getting drafted by the Raiders, I always wanted to be a prolific receiver,” Branch said. “And to come to the Raiders, who had Fred Biletnikoff and Raymond Chester and Warren Wells, you know, Daryle Lamonica and George Blanda, so I said I’m going to an ideal situation. To be able to learn from great players and play in a winning organization. So I was really totally blessed.”

Branch did much more than learn from those players. He used an attribute that the Raiders are arguably best known for — speed that kills — to help the team win three Super Bowls and with that, Branch helped mold a great franchise into an iconic one.

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