Cliff Branch: Alive in our hearts

I’ll never forget the excitement I had that day. The sports editor at my local newspaper, the Petaluma Argus-Courier, called me up and said he had an assignment for me: Raiders legend Cliff Branch was in town, go talk to him. 

My experience at that point consisted of junior college articles and high school sports coverage. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Another aspect that was difficult to grasp: why the heck would J.J. my editor, full name John Jackson, kick me this story? This was Cliff freaking Branch. But that’s what stringers are for. If I was covering the odd high school game, J.J. was buried in them. The news business is like a game of Plinko — that game on “The Price is Right,” when a puck bounces down toward its fate with no reason what-so-ever. And I got a lucky bounce. 

I was giddy. I’ve followed the Raiders since I was about 10 years old, for the majority of those years as an ardent fan. But I was a reporter now. Though I was working as a pantry and pizza cook to pay the bills. Regardless, I didn’t show up in my Raiders gear to meet Cliff, as I always imagined I would. I raced to National Sports Memorabilia in Petaluma after my shift was done, left my gray chef coat on for some reason, put on my plain black hat and my drab, warm jacket. It was December 2017. 

I walked in, and there he was. Raider greatness. Hall of Fame worthy, but wrongly snubbed. Raiders’ speed personified. He struck fear in opponents. Fans of his era of NFL football — not just Raiders fans — knew that defensive backfields had better watch for No. 21, or he’d burn them for six points before they knew what hit ‘em. The story of the NFL cannot be told without this man. 

I figured I’d get a 10-minute interview, at best. We talked for nearly two hours. 

He sat and signed autographs, and I sat beside him. I was fascinated by every word he said, entertained by his cool demeanor, and impressed with how he interacted with fans. (Including when I went back the next day for a follow-up and Cliff was talking to a young woman, in her late twenties, I’d say. He was smiling, she was giggling, and definitely leaning his way).

He answered every question of mine, though some of his comments remained off the record. It was clear he followed the current team; his insights on the history of Pro Football were invaluable; and he predicted the new owner, Mark Davis, would get the club turned around. (Cliff told me Davis was ready to take charge. It seemed like something was about to go down. I wrote a story about how Mark was acting more like Al, but nobody picked it up. Not long after our talk, Davis fired Jack Del Rio and hired Jon Gruden.) 

I wrote the story for J.J., staying up until four in the morning to do so. The excitement hadn’t nearly run out. It was a lot of work, to be sure, especially with all the material I had. But it was a writers’ dream. When it was published, I brought copies for Cliff. He loved the story and asked for more Argus-Couriers. That was one of my proudest moments and still is. 

After my story on Cliff, I figured I had some credibility and I started a Raiders podcast with my longtime friend and fellow Raiders fan, Larry Marbley. Not long after we started, The Raiders Wire noticed the show and asked us to write for the website. My current project, another podcast, only exists because of Cliff Branch and is inspired by his play on the field. For all of this, I’m beyond grateful to Mr. Branch.

I made sure to have my fan moment with Cliff in the midst of our professional relationship, showing up to another one of his signings at National Sports Memorabilia in full Raiders gear, including a jacket I’ve only worn twice. I told him I was writing about the Raiders on the internet now, and I had a podcast. He was genuinely happy for me. I thanked him profusely. I got an autographed picture from him. “Luke-Continued Success,” he wrote. I have that photo proudly displayed on my desk, as it will always be. 

He granted me more interviews over the next few years. I was constantly amazed I had fostered such a relationship. But that was Cliff: genuine, personable, and he loved to talk football. 

Through it all, It was evident Cliff felt he should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he would never say so. He only said his wide receivers coach upon entering the league, and head coach, Tom Flores, should be in. He reminisced proudly about his HOF teammates. 

But he knew his day of induction would come. He also was aware that he might not witness it in this world. He saw Ken Stabler inducted posthumously, as the entire Raider Nation did. He was still upbeat, always in motion. I texted him on his birthday, just two days before he passed. He thanked me for the birthday wishes and sent me some photos, as was his custom. 

“I truly believe it’s going to happen. I think about 2019, 2020,” Branch told me back in ‘17, of his Hall of Fame induction. “Madden said ‘It’s going to happen, so you gotta be patient — patient and stay alive.’” 

Sadly, that’s not what happened. He won’t be with us when he is finally, and rightfully, enshrined. But Cliff Branch is alive in our hearts, and he will never, ever be forgotten. 

 

Raiders legend Cliff Branch bolstered by support as he waits on Pro Football HOF

Raiders legend Cliff Branch is still waiting to hear from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he’s got the support he needs to get him to that glorious moment.

“The Raider Nation, Raiders.com, the Raider organization, a lot of the sports writers, that goes into representing me. Art Shell, and former players like Mel Blount, Joe Greene, Mike Haynes and Marcus Allen and you know, guys speaking up for me, that I deserve it. It’s very supportive, man,” Branch said from National Sports Memorabilia in Petaluma, located in the San Francisco Bay Area. 

Branch, 70, was selected as an NFL All-Pro three times, and he won three Super Bowls with the Raiders. Branch made an impact in the big game, and in the playoffs in general. He was the NFL’s all-time leader in playoff catches and yards when he retired in 1985.

A former world-class sprinter at the University of Colorado, Branch helped form the identity of one of the NFL’s most iconic franchises. The Raiders are known, to this day and likely forever, for having speed to burn. Without Branch, a fourth-round draft pick by legendary former club owner Al Davis, it’s questionable whether the Raiders would have that reputation — or own three Lombardi Trophies.

Branch has to be selected by the Pro Football Hall of Fame Seniors Committee in order to make it to Canton. It didn’t happen this year, as the group nominated former Chiefs safety, Johnny Robinson, according to the PFHOF official website.

But Branch is still optimistic. A good word from another Raiders legend bolsters his spirits.

“John Madden says it’s gonna happen,” Branch said. “He says ‘be patient and stay alive.’ I truly believe it’s going to happen, I think about 2019, 2020.”

Branch is well aware of the fate of fabled Raiders quarterback, Ken Stabler and his wait for the Hall of Fame. One of the most worthy players of being immortalized in Canton, Stabler passed away before the honor was bestowed upon him.

“He got his due, but he just didn’t get a chance to enjoy it,” Branch said of his one-time QB.

That heavy reality doesn’t seem to weigh on Branch. He’s lively as ever — interacting with fans while signing autographs, and performing charity work in Sacramento. He still awaits word from the Hall of Fame, but the support he gets from Raiders fans and players and even adversaries makes the time more than bearable.

Raiders legend Cliff Branch offers thoughts on potential last game at Coliseum

Legendary Raiders wide receiver Cliff Branch is signing autographs this holiday weekend at National Sports Memorabilia in Petaluma while he prepares for what could be his old team’s last game at the Oakland Coliseum.

But for Branch, a three-time Super Bowl champion with the Raiders, Monday night’s game against the Broncos doesn’t carry the feeling of finality.

“To me, it’s not the last game yet. I don’t feel it’s the last game because it’s not official,” Branch said.

The Raiders have broken talks with the city of Oakland in relation to renting the Coliseum for one more season. Team owner Mark Davis brokered a deal to move his club to Las Vegas, and his team will play there starting in 2020.

The Raiders were supposed to play 2019 in Oakland. Now, multiple options are on the table, including San Francisco’s AT&T Park. It still remains a possibility the Raiders will play in the Coliseum in 2019.

But when the Raiders and Broncos kick off Monday night, nobody will know the Coliseum’s fate with certainty. With the date of the Raiders’ departure from Oakland possibly moved up an entire year, fans, players and anyone affiliated with the team will have to put their emotions on hold until an official word.

“If we knew it was the last game, that’s when it’s real and it hits really hard,” Branch said.

Raiders’ Lincoln Kennedy talks Jon Gruden, Derek Carr from #vanlife tailgate presented by 76

Lincoln Kennedy looked a bit out of place sitting in the front seat of a 1975 Volkswagon Microbus. But it was fitting. Kennedy — a former All-Pro offensive lineman with the Raiders — was telling the story of how his illustrious football career began.

The 6-foot-7 Kennedy, who’s not far from his playing weight of 335 pounds, stood out for his size when he was discovered by his high school coach, John Shacklett, as well. He was as big then as he is now, and while he was on the football field when Shacklett first saw him, he had yet to play a snap. Kennedy was playing trumpet for the school marching band.

“He asked me what grade I was in,” Kennedy said of Shacklett. “I told him ‘ninth grade.’ He said, ‘You’re coming out for football in August.’ And the rest is history.”

He was cruising to the Pac-12 Championship game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, where he represented the conference at a tailgate put on by the game’s sponsor, 76 gasoline. While there, Kennedy revealed insights about his primary employer, the Oakland Raiders. After broadcasting from the sideline for years, Kennedy is now the team’s color analyst.

Kennedy is perfectly positioned to be in the know in regards to the Raiders’ first-year coach, Jon Gruden. He played for Gruden during the coach’s previous stint in Oakland, and he also played against him in Super Bowl XXXVII. Now, Kennedy covers his old coach’s new Raiders squad.

Gruden’s return was supposed to bring a Super Bowl run before the team moves to Las Vegas in 2020, but the plan has floundered. Gruden and the Raiders traded superstar defensive end Khalil Mack before the season began and shipped Pro-Bowl wide receiver Amari Cooper out of town once the campaign was off the rails. The team is 2-10 heading into their Week 14 game against the Steelers.

“They’re just not very good,” Kennedy said. “It’s nothing personal. They still have to learn how to play with one another, they still have to have other weapons.”

But they still have franchise quarterback Derek Carr. The relationship between him and Gruden is of the utmost importance moving forward. The Raiders are rebuilding again, after building up to a 12-4 record in 2016, but Kennedy says the season may have been destined to go this way.

“With the money Khalil Mack was asking for, even if they were to strike a deal, I don’t know how you could [keep Carr, Mack and Cooper]. You might be hog-tied by those contracts and really prevent you from building depth,” Kennedy said. “Khalil Mack’s a game changer and you see what he’s been able to do with Chicago, but they also have a few more pieces on defense. It’s not just him doing his own thing.”

Chicago’s defense does have more players in place to help Mack thrive. But one thing was clear after the first day of Gruden’s return campaign: The Raiders may have traded their season away in dealing Mack.

Mack’s career with the Bears started with a tsunami-sized splash on Sunday night football Week 1. He recorded a sack, a forced fumble, an interception and a touchdown. The Raiders were waiting to play on Monday night against the Rams and undoubtedly saw the show — or at least heard all about it.

The Mack deal was an appropriate re-introduction to the NFL for Gruden, according to Kennedy. The coach last patroled an NFL sideline in 2008 with the Buccaneers, and he’s faced plenty of questions about whether he could thrive in the league today.

“He’s the same. The game is the same,” Kennedy said. “The only thing that’s different is the attitude of the players. That’s something that Gruden has to get used to and he also has to deal with – the business side with the players. Now, there was always the salary cap when he was coaching so it’s not anything new”

“But the economics of it has to weigh into how you conduct business as a general manager slash head coach. These are all things Jon Gruden needs to be prepared for in today’s NFL.”

Quarterback Derek Carr’s contract is a good example of that. Carr’s $25 million salary made it difficult to pull the trigger on a deal for Mack, who is now the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL.

Carr earned his deal by playing at an MVP level in 2016. The Raiders were on an upswing at the time, and they’ve got to rebuild around their fifth-year quarterback once again. Carr’s play has suffered in spots this season, leaving some to doubt his standing with Gruden.

But Kennedy sees a quarterback that’s playing at a disadvantage.

“He doesn’t have enough weapons to go to. Secondly, his offensive line hasn’t done a good job protecting,” Kennedy said of Carr. “So how can you truly evaluate him when all these obstacles and circumstances are against him?”

The Raiders traded Cooper, the man that was to be their No. 1 target. Wide receivers Jordy Nelson and Martavis Bryant have both battled injury. Running back Marshawn Lynch is out for the year. And the offensive line has allowed 39 sacks this season, the most since 2006.

The poor performance from the line comes despite heavy investments in the front five. Center Rodney Hudson and guards Kelechi Osemele and Gabe Jackson are all signed to lucrative deals. Rookie left tackle Kolton Miller is a first-round pick, and the Raiders traded up to draft right tackle Brandon Parker two rounds later.

The line’s development, like the entire rebuilding process, will take time, according to Kennedy.

“Offensive line play is hell-bent on consistency. It succeeds when you keep the guys together,” Kennedy said. “There is so much miscommunication and non-communication between say, Parker and Jackson on the right side, and Kolton and Kelechi are getting a little bit better. But still, when you watch other teams run stunts and games against this offensive line, see how quickly those guys break down.”

Kennedy was Gruden’s starting right tackle from 1998-01, only missing two games and making the Pro Bowl team twice during Gruden’s first tenure in Oakland. Kennedy was voted All-Pro in 2002, the year the Raiders lost to Gruden’s Buccaneers in the Super Bowl.

The Raiders offensive line was a force during all five of those campaigns. They blocked for quarterback Rich Gannon, who was the league MVP in 2002. Gannon was an elite scrambling quarterback that had mastered Gruden’s offense, and he had superb skill players around him. Yet Gruden and Gannon were known to argue on the sideline and elsewhere, much like Carr and Gruden have been spotted doing.

“[They argued] quite a bit. I mean they were constantly against one another,” Kennedy said of his former coach and QB.

Kennedy says the creative friction between Gruden and Gannon was beneficial, and the same dynamic can work with Gruden and his new pupil, Carr.

“You want to have sort of that combative nature. You basically have two quarterbacks going at it,” Kennedy said. Gruden was a backup QB at Dayton in the early 1980s. “One sees one thing and the other sees the other thing.”

Carr needs to mimic Gannon in one other way, according to Kennedy.

“I think the relationship could work because I do think that Derek Carr’s a quarterback that can make every throw. However, he has limitations. This offense has limitations. I firmly believe that there are times when Derek holds onto the ball too long. He should just take off and run — much like Rich Gannon did,” Kennedy said.

Gruden agrees with his former lineman.

“We would like to get more rushing yards from him because he is capable of doing it,” Gruden said of Carr, during the Raiders’ Week 14 edition of In the Huddle with coach Gruden.

Gruden also said this about being able to make something out of nothing: “That’s what I think the great quarterbacks do.” Gruden was talking about Colts QB Andrew Luck before Indianapolis came to Oakland Week 8.

Kennedy says Carr’s key to unlocking a Gannon-like command of the offense, whether he becomes a scambler or not, is to make his thoughts a bit more elementary.

“There are times when Derek overthinks things. Gruden’s offense really is simple. It really is. But if you tend to complicate it or try to over-read things then you put yourself in a disadvantage.

“And he tries to come off [the field] and explain himself, why he’s thinking, and that infuriates Gruden. It’s dropping drives. It’s not scoring points. It’s giving up a turnover, it’s that type of thing,” Kennedy said.

And that’s where the Raiders are right now. A depleted roster stitched together with Gruden-endorsed veteran free agents, an underperforming offensive line, and a high priced coach and quarterback that have to figure each other out and lead the franchise.

But the Raiders have assets — five first-round draft picks in the next two years, thanks to the Mack and Cooper trades, and loads of salary cap space. Gruden and general manager Reggie McKenzie had a good draft haul in 2018, and their magic needs to continue if the team is to be on the rise again in 2020.

The Raiders franchise found some magic when they signed Kennedy in 1996. A former No. 9 overall pick for the Falcons in 1993, Kennedy started just six games his final two years in Atlanta. Al Davis, the late owner of the Raiders, came calling.

“When I heard that Al Davis was going to make a play for me, when I got here, I talked with Al Davis and Joe Bugel, who was the offensive line coach at the time, and they were like ‘look, your a Raider, you’re here,’ and so I was happy to get another chance to prove myself,” Kennedy said.

When asked about some of his best memories playing for the Raiders, Kennedy highlighted his All-Pro nod, winning the AFC championship against the Titans, playing in the Pro Bowl, and playing in the Super Bowl in his hometown of San Diego.

“I wish we could have won the game,” Kennedy said. “But it really was a dream come true.”

Kennedy is, of course, still a Raider. Plus, he’s the co-host of “The Fellas” on Fox Sports Radio on Saturday mornings, a Pac-12 studio analyst and he’s found time to be a motivational speaker for about five years now.

And he owns his own cigar company, El-K Cigars.

“It’s more of a fun hobby,” said Kennedy, who created his own custom blend. “I’ve been smoking cigars … even back when I was playing. I’ve always enjoyed having them to relax.”

There was no smoking at Great America, the site of our tailgate, as far as I could tell, but it was one heck of a party — complete with two marching bands. Although Kennedy’s trumpet-playing days are over.

Plus, Kennedy’s alma mater, the Washington Huskies beat Utah for the Pac-12 crown. It was just another busy day for Lincoln Kennedy, who was enshrined into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2015. But his most demanding endeavor, covering the Raiders, makes everything worthwhile.

“The opportunity after I hung up my cleats, to still be a part of it in some capacity is another blessing itself,” Kennedy said. “To be an ambassador for people in the organization, being a conduit, to be able to keep the passion alive, it’s special to me.”

 

 

 

Note: Photo credit- Aubrey Aquino

Raider Larry on Gruden/Carr sideline spat: ‘I love it, it reminds me of Rich Gannon’

Raiders coach Jon Gruden is finally getting back to his old ways with the Raiders. Not as far as winning games, as the team in just 2-8, but his competitive fire is roaring. And the coach just found out he can bark at quarterback Derek Carr without their relationship crumbling.

Gruden and Carr were caught arguing on the sideline during their second win of the season in Arizona. Both downplayed the incident after the game.

Gruden is notorious for having open communication with his quarterbacks, most notably former Raiders QB and NFL MVP Rich Gannon — which was pointed out by Larry Marbley on “The Raider Larry Show.”

“I absolutely love it because it reminds me of Gannon,” Marbley said. “It took a while for Gruden and Gannon to mesh and get that combination really hitting.”

Listen to the entire segment of the show here, starting at the seven-minute mark.

The Raiders’ season hasn’t gone as Gruden had hoped, but he still has a quarterback arguably worth building around. If the two are to work together to bring the Raiders back to relevance, this was a bridge that they needed to cross. It appears now their relationship is gaining strength.