Cliff Branch, a former world-class sprinter who was one of the N.F.L.’s top deep threats, winning three Super Bowls in 14 seasons with the Raiders, was found dead on Saturday in a hotel room in Bullhead City, Ariz. He was 71.
The police there, in northwest Arizona, said Branch had died of natural causes. No specific cause was given.
Branch, wiry at 5 feet 11 and 170 pounds but remarkably durable, was one of professional football’s fastest players in his years with the Raiders, 1972 to 1985, first in Oakland, Calif., and later in Los Angeles. He spent his entire career with the team.
“With him it’s not running, it’s flying,” the Raiders owner Al Davis told the columnist Dave Anderson of The New York Times in 1974.
Branch was an All-Pro three straight seasons (1974-76) and made four Pro Bowls — a record of success that many of his former teammates and coaches, as well as Branch himself, believed should have earned him a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Branch scored 67 touchdowns through the air, leading the National Football League in touchdown receptions in 1974 with 13 and in 1976 with 12. He had a league-high 1,092 yards receiving in 1974. He ended his career with 501 receptions, averaging 17.3 yards per catch as a target for three of the top quarterbacks of his era, Daryle Lamonica, Ken Stabler and Jim Plunkett. (The N.F.L. record for career receiving average is held by Homer Jones of the Giants and the Cleveland Browns, with 22.26.)
Branch was a force in the postseason as well, with 1,289 yards receiving. The Raiders won Super Bowls after the 1976, 1980 and 1983 seasons — the last one in Los Angeles, where the franchise had moved from Oakland in 1982 after lengthy court fights before returning to the Bay Area in 1995.
He made 14 catches for 181 yards and three scores in those championship games: a 32-14 victory over the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl XI at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.; a 27-10 win against the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XV at the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans; and a 38-9 rout of the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII at Tampa Stadium in Florida. The Raiders have not won a Super Bowl since.
Only five other players in the franchise’s history were part of all three teams.
In 1983, at age 35, Branch tied the N.F.L. record with a 99-yard touchdown catch in a regular-season game, gathering in a pass from Plunkett against the Redskins in Washington and outrunning their secondary. He stands third among Raiders pass catchers in yards receiving with 8,685, trailing Tim Brown and Fred Biletnikoff — both Hall of Famers.
He piled up those statistics despite a relatively slight frame for the N.F.L.
“Everyone talked about the big bad Raiders,” John Madden, the team’s head coach from 1969 to 1978, said in an interview with NFL Films, but Branch “was so skinny, his back pockets would fight when he walked.”
Even so, his teammate Art Shell, a Hall of Fame offensive tackle and later a Raiders head coach, said Branch had been feared throughout the league.
“Cliff Branch was the ultimate deep threat for the Raiders,” he once said in an interview. “He’d stretch the defense. Those guys were just afraid that he’d blow by them, and, ultimately, he would blow by them.”
Clifford Branch Jr. was born on Aug. 1, 1948, in Houston. He was a standout player at Worthing High School there and attended Wharton County Community College in Wharton, Tex., before transferring to the University of Colorado, where he was a sprinter on the track team as well as a star receiver for the Buffaloes. He was once clocked at 9.2 seconds in the 100-yard dash.
But in college he thought of himself as a football player first. “I was a football player who also ran track,” he told The Times in 1974. “The difference between being a sprinter and a wide receiver is learning to control your speed when you have to make a cut in running a pattern.”
He graduated in 1972 and became a fourth-round draft pick by the Raiders.
Branch lived in the Bay Area and did charity work for the Raiders organization in later years. His survivors include a son, Brent.
Frustrated in his Hall of Fame dreams — he was a semifinalist for the honor in 2004 and 2010 — Branch remained convinced that he was deserving. (Inductees are chosen by a committee made up largely of news media representatives.)
“All my peers that I played against and that are in the Hall of Fame, they tell me that I deserve to be in the Hall of Fame,” he told the Raiders’ website in a recent interview. “It’s the crowning glory, just like getting a Super Bowl ring.”
The Raiders organization concurred after his death, declaring in a statement, “Cliff’s on-field accomplishments are well documented and undeniably Hall of Fame worthy.”
Mike Ditka, the Hall of Fame tight end and former coach of the Chicago Bears, was once even more succinct in an interview.
“He’s a Hall of Famer,” he said of Branch. “Period.”