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One-on-One With Oakland Raiders Great Cliff Branch

Cliff Branch took time recently to sit down with Niners Nation front page writer nocal81(vincent). Branch spoke about issues ranging from his time with the Raiders to the current NFL labor situation. For more discussion on the Raiders, check out Silver and Black Pride.

Cliff Branch
Cliff Branch

Niners Nation front page writer nocal81(vincent) was fortunate enough recently to meet former Oakland Raiders great Cliff Branch. Over the course of a 14-year career, Branch finished with 501 receptions, 8,685 yards and 67 touchdowns. The Raider great discussed a variety of issues with Vincent ranging from the Raiders to the lockout to his worthiness for the Hall of Fame. What follows is Vincent's interview.

On Tuesday I had the pleasure to interview Oakland Raider great, Cliff Branch. He was signing autographs at a Santa Rosa K-Mart for City of Hope charity. We spoke about a wide array of issues relating to his playing career with the Oakland and Los Angeles Raiders as well as the experiences that he had as an NFL player. Additionally, we spent a nice amount of time on CBA issues and the current situation in the league as it relates to the local teams and the broader league environment. The interview itself was extremely interesting and Mr. Branch came of as a well-rounded and receptive individual. I agreed with him on a lot of the issues that we discussed and the conversation went great.

What was your best memory as a player for the Raiders?

My favorite moment was getting drafted by the Oakland Raiders in 1972, that would have to be the best memory because I didn't know anything about the Oakland Raiders; and that had to be the AFL at that time. I didn't know anything about the tradition. Then I said wow, I am going to a winning organization.

John Madden was your first NFL Coach. He coached the Raiders until the end of the 1978 season. What was the experience playing under him?

Well, a lot of people like to think that John was a players coach and I would have to agree with that. He had very few rules, he knew players didn't make the kind of money that they make today. He was the type of coach that gave the players a lot of rope. He only had a few rules; be on times, pay attention when you are in meetings and go like hell on Sundays. He gave us a lot of room for error because he had a lot of great players on that team. We were always divisional champions, always fighting for championships. I was in 7 championship games in 14 years. 

After a stellar career at Colorado was it a surprise that you fell to the 4th round in the 1972 draft. How did you handle the suspense of that weekend?

When I was at the Hula Bowl and talking to the scouts they said that I could go anywhere from the 2nd to the 4th round.  I never got a call, I waited in my apartment and I never got a called. One  teammates that were drafted by the Denver Broncos that year called me and said "I just heard that you were drafted by the Oakland Raiders.

So you heard from a friend?

Yes, I never got a call from the Oakland raiders. It was different those days, nowadays you have parties and stuff like that.

You won your first of three Super Bowl Championships in 1976 by beating the Minnesota Vikings. Was that the most satisfying of your three championships?

Without a doubt because I was in seven championship games and we lost four times. The 1973 championship game we lost, 1974 against the Steelers, and in the 1976 championship game we beat the Steelers. To win that game and say "yes the Super Bowl is a reality", because it was tough getting there.

What did you do to celebrate that Super Bowl Ring?

We didn't really have a party like we had for Super Bowl XV and XVIII. We had a hotel and stuff to celebrate, a band and all of that stuff. In the first Super Bowl everyone went on their own to celebrate. I hung out with a couple players and their wives; I was also married at that time. We had a low key night and talked about the game, stuff like that.

You played four seasons with the Los Angeles Raiders after they relocated from Oakland. How did that experience differ from playing here in the Bay Area?

Loved it in L.A. The change was good for me, I needed the change; to get away from Oakland. It rejuvenated my career. There was a lot to do in L.A., I am a big Disneyland and Magic Mountain type of guy. Loved living on the beach, the ocean year round. It was amazing for me, so much stuff to do there. The years we were the Oakland Raiders we always had sell-out crowds. There were always 50,000 screaming fans. Then we went down to L.A. and you had a 90,000 seat stadium, about half of it was filled. Once we started winning, people could still walk up and get a ticket. We would get 90,000 for the playoff games, the next year we played the Steelers and set a playoff attendance record. It was great, you know what I mean. A joy playing in front of a massive crowd. It is a whole different world then Northern California. When we were in Oakland we were a really close-knit team. When we went to L.A. and everybody is leaving in these properties all over the place. It wasn't as close-knit of a team, but we were still successful.

You played with some of the greatest players, I am not talking about just the Oakland Raiders, but from the AFL and NFL alike. Who was the best player that you ever played with?

On the offense I would have to say Freddie B[iletnikoff]. Being a receiver I had to learn from him. Basically I was his shadow, I had to mimic him because he was my teacher. On the defensive side, I would have to say Jack Tatum because he was a guy that offensive players feared.

What about Ted Hendrix, how was it playing with him?

He would have to be 1B, and I am real close with Ted and stuff like that. Here is a guy that got four Super Bowl rings, three with the Raiders and one with the Colts. He is a Hall of Famer, someone that could turn things around on the defensive side. He blocked kicks, he made big plays tackling and intercepting balls. He knew offensive formations. There was not one offensive formation that he did not see, he knew them all. 

The NFL is in the midst of a lock-out as we speak. What is your view on this?

Well, I am a player. Sure there is enough money and stuff to improve the health insurance issue. Us old guys, I mean these guys are making so much money they can afford to better fund the retired players. There is always more money for health insurance and the retired players. I went through two strikes, we went through a 50 day strike. We played two games, striked for seven weeks, where there was no football. We came back and ended up playing seven more games. We had the best record in the AFC, Washington had the best record in the NFL; but, a crucial fumble by Marcus Allen caused us not to go to the Super Bowl. You have nine billion dollars they are trying to decide on, I mean c'mon. The lockout is now and not during the season. They have plenty of time, they still got three months to get that thing done.

Do you think it will get resolved in time for the 2011 season to being on time?

Yes, the NFL is at a high point right now, revenue is good. You have Direct TV, they would be losing money and the players want to play football. I cannot see them going into a season, I can't even see them missing training camp. They have missed OTA's, but they are still going to have a draft. It is a real setback for both Hue Jackson and Jim Harbaugh, who are behind the eight ball right now because there is no preparation and so forth.

As someone that played in the NFL for 14 seasons you took your fair share of hits. How should the NFL protect players from long term brain injuries?

Man, that is a tough question to answer. I mean the equipment today, the helmets are so technologically advanced to withstand hits. Players are bigger, stronger and fast now. I mean you have 300 pounds players all over both lines. When I played you probably had two 300 hundred pound players on the team. I mean these 300 pounds guys can run. For me to really say what they could do. I don't have an answer for that. They are always changing rules for the ways you can make contact. When I played it was a free for all. As a WR we could get jammed all the way down the field, now they have the five yard rule. It is a whole different game now, they have to combat it by making tough decision on how to improve the health issues.

Oakland made headlines by drafting Darious Heyward-Bey over Michael Crabtree a couple of years ago. Which player do you think will have a better NFL career?

My pick was Jeremy Maclin. You know, but how do you judge the talent? How does Desean Jackson fall to the 2nd round? How do the Bay Area teams let him go? He was a Bay Area kid. I saw this guy play in college, and this guy looked like Paul Warfield on the field. Mr. Davis loves speed, but what can I say. They say that he is still looking for me.

They are two different types of receivers. Crabtree was the #1 receiver, well should have been the #1 receiver. Crabtree was far along in his development. This year is going to be a big year for Heyward-Bey; he has to show his stuff

What are your thoughts about JaMarcus Russell?

He was the quickest #1 pick to ever be released. His preparation, he wasn't prepared. Being a #1 draft choice, he should have been watching film. He should have been another Peyton Manning; he didn't put in enough effort. You could tell that he showed glimpses the year before when they beat Houston and Tampa Bay. He had to go because the Raiders Nation didn't like him at all. If they would have brought him back the Raiders wouldn't have sold any tickets because they hated him. His work ethic had to be the worse man. He could open up the game and throw an interception or fumble, and give the ball to the defense on the opening series almost every time. He had all the talent in the world, but he didn't prepare himself at all. Russell was a party boy, they gave him all this money. He really set the Raiders back because he was supposed to be their franchise QB.

Alex Smith?

Alex has had his ups and downs, but his thing has been the coordinator. Every year that he has been there he has had a different coordinator. Smith has played four or five years he has Harbaugh on his side and if he has any talent Harbaugh will bring it out of him.

Some people have compared current Oakland Raider, Jacoby Ford, to you. Do you see any similarities between yourself and Ford?

He is a playmaker, he makes big plays. Here is a guy who just really stepped it up last year and made big plays. They were probably just counting on him to be a return guy. They put him in at wide receiver, and he made plays. He also became very consistent ; the Kansas City Chiefs game comes to mind. All of a sudden you have someone that can make plays, a playmaker; another Cliff Branch. He has a bright future; he is well ahead of Heyward-Bey, so there.

What was your take on the Raiders letting Tom Cable go after a surprising 8-8 season?

He had to go, he had to go. Hue Jackson was the reason for the improved offense because he called the plays. Hue was running the offense, he had to go. It was either make the playoffs or you're fired, same think with Singletary in San Francisco. It was Hue Jackson who called the plays. 

What advice would you have for young football players in High School and College?

Be coachable, if you are coachable and you listen. Coaches have experience and they will tell you the right thing. A lot of thing with the young athletes today is that they think that they know everything and work real hard at your craft. You could never not do enough work. You could always do more work, run routes, work on videos. You can always do something more.  

Will Nnamdi Asomugha be back with the Raiders?

Hopefully Asamogha will say that he wants to be loyal and I want to be a Raider. Hopefully he would take a pay cut. Show how loyal you are, take 10 million dollars. That is still a lot of damn money; after taxes you will still get 7 million.

You had a standout NFL career for the Raiders, won three Super Bowl Titles, made the Pro Bowl four separate times. Are you upset that the Hall of Fame has not recognized you yet?

Yeah, yeah I am. I have been nominated a couple times, in 2010 and 2004. How do you go as a top 25 guy and then you don't be in the top 25 anymore. Ray Guy and Kenny Stabler have been their numerous times and they haven't got the call. It is kind of a joke how the Hall of Fame selection committee selects the players. We look at it now, if you are on TV and you are a candidate you are going right in. All those guys that are on ESPN, NFL Network and FOX ; if they are hall of fame candidates they go right in.

Are you expecting to get the call?

It will happen, it will happen; I truly believe that it will happen.