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FSM Presents: The Raiders Realist – The Ultimate Hall Pass

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“Having patience always gives you what you deserve.”― Fatma Alfalasi


Raiders Realist
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The NFL Hall of Fame has always been an interesting idea for me. The men and women of sports, professional and amateur, grind away for years and years, accumulating awards, accolades, and legacies, only for their ultimate merits to be debated on by much lesser men and women (including yours truly) who follow the sports they played, coached, or worked in.

The very notion of it is actually hilarious to me. Imagine another field, cooking for example, and someone like food critic Frank Anthony Bruni deeming Marco Pierre White unfit for a chef’s hall of fame because he used stock cubes as a shortcut to season food.

For those of you I already lost, I am sorry. Let us get back on topic. The point I am trying to make is that on one hand, the idea of a hall of fame is trivial, but make no mistake, it serves as the ultimate validation of a life’s work for so many people who gave a majority of their lives to the sport they were in. The Pro Football Hall of Fame has long been a source of contention for Raiders fans, mostly due to the people Raider Nation sees as unfairly being omitted from induction in it.


I am going to speak on every single one of those people here, but let’s go right to the person whose very fate was voted this week and will be revealed before Super Bowl LV. No, not Charles Woodson, who barring some complete lapse of judgment by the voting members will be a first-ballot inductee.


Raiders Realist
Photo Credit: Jay Calderon/The Desert Sun

No, I am talking about Tom Flores. Someone that has been a defining Raiders throughout my life. When I first started watching football, he was the Raiders head coach. After his stint with the Seattle Seahawks as head coach and general manager, he returned to the Raiders organization as a radio analyst for 21 years. Now 83 years old, 2021 represents his final shot to take his place among his peers in Canton.

Here is the thing that bothers me about this process: Nothing has changed on the resume of Tom Flores since he last coached in 1994. Yet 27 years later, he will either get in or be left out for good. That alone is asinine. To wait almost a third of your life on an honor that should either be a simple yes or no is insulting. That Flores is still waiting is almost cruel.

Yet, here is the rub: Hall of Fame voters tend to reward sizzle much more than steak. Flashy numbers matter more than actual results, which can be attributed to other factors. That Flores was the head coach of two of the Raiders three Super Bowl victories should have alone been enough. Instead, he has been lumped with another deserving and overdue entrant in former San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers head coach George Seifert.

The detractors have said for years that both were products of the organizations, not the cause of their success. Which is just dumb. Yes, dumb. The eyes do not lie. There’s a difference between being Barry Switzer, who was actively kept off the steering wheel while coaching the dynastic Dallas Cowboys of the 1990’s, and being a player’s coach like Flores. The funny thing is, Flores inherited the job from another person who was said to just be a puppet of late great Raiders owner Al Davis, Hall of Fame head coach John Madden.


Well, something does not compute. From 1979-1987, Flores had a winning record six times, won three AFC West titles and two Super Bowls. In the 34 years since, the Raider franchise has won four AFC West titles, no Super Bowls, and has had just eight winning seasons. History has drawn a line in the sand after 1985 as the decline of the Raiders franchise. Perhaps it should have been 1987.


But okay, fine. Maybe his 97 wins just don’t blow voters away. Or worse, his 14-34 record while running the Seahawks is validation that he was a push-button coach taking orders from Davis. Then explain Hank Stram. Or Mike Ditka. Hall of Famers who both had awful second acts as coaches. What Coach Flores did in Seattle should not define the totality of his football life anymore than Marv Levy‘s 0-4 Super Bowl record should define his.

Oh, and speaking of Ditka, there is a much more positive shared connection with Flores. They remain the only two people in the history of the NFL to have won Super Bowls as players, assistant coaches, and head coaches. That is right, besides just being a two-time Super Bowl-winning head coach, Tom Flores was the original quarterback of the Raiders and an assistant coach on the 1976 Super Bowl champions.

Which brings me back to something I said earlier: All of this was on the resume in the 1990’s. So was something I have not mentioned but trumps every objective achievement Coach Flores has accomplished. He was the very first Latino head coach in NFL history and in just two years, was the first to win a Super Bowl. Cliche as it is, you can not write the history of the game of pro football without including Tom Flores. It is time. It is beyond time.


So good luck to Coach Flores and to the best defensive back in Raiders history (with all due respect to the incomparable Willie Brown), Charles Woodson. And honorable mention to former Raiders defensive lineman Richard Seymour. He will absolutely be someone to get strong consideration over the next few years. But as promised, I keep things honest here. And along with Coach Flores, there have been four notable names that Raiders fans believe should also be Hall of Famers. In no particular order, here goes.


Raiders Realist
Photo Credit: George Rose/Getty Images

First and foremost, the quarterback for Coach Flores in 1980 and 1983, Jim Plunkett. The former Heisman Trophy winner was a washout after seven years of toiling in mediocrity for the New England Patriots and then the 49ers. He sat on the bench for two years behind Ken Stabler and was the backup to Dan Pastorini in 1980 before fate intervened and the arc of his career bent upward. Six and a half years later, Plunkett retired won a Super Bowl MVP, NFL Comeback Player of the Year, and two-thirds of his starts as Raiders quarterback.

Unfortunately, I can also point to Marc Wilson, the man he was frequently benched in favor of, who won 62 percent of his starts as Raiders quarterback from 1981-1987. The reality is, injury enabled Plunkett to intervene not once but twice. He was no longer the starter in 1983 and it took a broken shoulder or perhaps the Raiders may not have won their third title. That is how bad Wilson was. But I digress.

No All-Pro berths, no Pro Bowl selections, not even consistently the starter for the Raiders outside the two years he rallied them to championships. Noteworthy, yes. Hall of Fame worthy?

Verdict: NO


Next is the late Cliff Branch. Clifford Branch as Al Davis used to call him, was the apex of what the Raiders liked to do on offense. What Warren Wells did in the AFL, Branch took to another level in the NFL in the 1970’s and in to the 1980’s. His omission is one that I take extreme umbrage with because his literally ranks right with his peers from the era he played in. The raw numbers were very good for their time: 501 catches, 8685 yards, 67 touchdowns.


Raiders Realist
Photo Credit: Focus on Sport/Getty Images

For comparison’s sake, let us take two players from the Raiders archrivals who are both in the Hall of Fame and put their numbers on display. One had 336 catches, 5462 yards, and 51 touchdowns. In all fairness, this player did technically play in five fewer seasons, though Branch barely saw the field in the first and last seasons of his career. Their per-game numbers are almost identical though. Who is this mystery player? Lynn Swann of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who was inducted in 2001.

Player two had a much comparable career in terms of longevity, playing the same 14 years as Branch and amassing 537 catches, 8723 yards, and 63 touchdowns. Those raw numbers are almost identical to Branch’s. Something tells me 36 catches and 38 yards over 14 years is not the dividing line to Hall of Fame induction. Yet, Lynn Swann‘s teammate John Stallworth was inducted in 2002. Somehow Cliff Branch is not. Not with similar numbers or the fact that even though they overlapped eras, Branch was a four-time first-team All-Pro to Swann’s one and Stallworth’s one.

So maybe it was the postseason, since the 1970’s Steelers were the defining dynasty of pro football for many in a generation. Swann did win Super Bowl MVP in their second title win over the Dallas Cowboys in January 1976. Both Swann and Stallworth have four rings. But Branch has three. And like both Swann and Stallworth, was every bit the big game player. All three had three Super Bowl receiving touchdowns, which is more impressive for Branch as he did this in one fewer game. When Branch retired, he was the all-time leader in yards receiving in postseason history. Some 36 years after his retirement, he remains fourth on that list, behind Jerry Rice, Julian Edelman, and Michael Irvin. Stallworth is 14th and Swann is 19th on that list, respectively.

The numbers are there. And the capper was the fact that in his era, Cliff Branch was the single most dangerous big play receiver in pro football, when the passing game was predicated on the big play. This one is easy. That Branch has passed away before receiving this honor is shameful.

Verdict: YES


Player three is Lester Hayes. The Judge. The master of stickum and without question, producer of the single greatest season by a cornerback in NFL history. What Hayes did in 1980 was supernatural. To have 18 total interceptions in 20 games and have another four called back by penalty just defies logic. Like I said, it is the best single season by a corner ever, maybe for any defensive player.


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Photo Credit: UPI

The problem is, Hayes lived on that reputation for another five years. Do not get me wrong, from 1981-1985, Hayes was still a very good, sometimes elite corner. The four consecutive Pro Bowl selections after 1980 are proof of that. But he was never great in that way. By the 1983 playoffs, he was clearly the number two corner on his own team when the Raiders acquired future Hall of Famer Mike Haynes.

Go back and watch for yourself.

Given the choice of challenging Haynes or Hayes, quarterbacks took their chances with Hayes. That in and of itself should not be the sole criticism, considering Haynes was back-to-back first-team All-Pro in 1984 and 1985 and probably the best cover corner in football. But considering that Hayes was still near his physical prime in 1986 and slipped, to the point that Hanford Dixon and Frank Minnifield of the Cleveland Browns were then considered the best cornerback tandem in the league, it is splitting hairs, but Hayes is in the Hall of Very Good. A great reason for Mark Davis to create a Raiders Hall of Fame.

Verdict: NO


The last player is someone I do not think history ever gives enough credit to, and that is the late Todd Christensen. It is easy to look at the modern game and see Travis Kelce, Darren Waller, and George Kittle and think that the tight end has always been this big time offensive weapon. But that is not even close to being true. Matter of fact, the true rebirth of the position was ushered in by three great players: Kellen Winslow Sr. of the San Diego Chargers, Ozzie Newsome of the Cleveland Browns, and Christensen.


Raiders Realist
Photo Credit: Getty Images

Two of them are in the Hall of Fame. Yet from 1982-1987, with all three players in the league simultaneously, Christensen was the best tight end in football. In those six years, he was a five-time Pro Bowler and was twice first-team All-Pro (and should have been a third time in 1986). By comparison, Winslow made one Pro Bowl and one first-team All-Pro in that span while Newsome had two and one. No player at any position caught more passes from 1982-1986 than Christensen, who led the league in catches in 1983 and again in 1986.

What is tragic about his case is that like other great players whose careers ended prematurely (most notably Green Bay’s Sterling Sharpe), Christensen’s raw overall numbers suffer in comparison to his contemporaries. Which is one of the great arguments I have about the process. Which is more important when considering greatness: A handful of truly great years, or 10-12 years of pretty good years?

There are players like Jerome Bettis that are Hall of Famers because of longevity, even though they were never truly elite at their position. And then there are players like Christensen (and Sharpe) who were transcendent for a short period of time (4-5 years) but do not have a larger body of work. Christensen being buried behind Raymond Chester, Derrick Ramsey, and Dave Casper his first three years with the Raiders is probably keeping him out because it did not provide the filling for his stats that voters seem to value. Which is a shame, because of all the Raiders currently out, only Cliff Branch deserves entry more than Todd Christensen.

Verdict: YES


We will see in the very near future if any or all of these former Raiders greats, including Coach Flores finally gets the call to hall. A much deserving honor that is long overdue for Flores.


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