Friday, August 20, 2010

Don't Hate the Raider, Hate the Blame: Part One

While researching my post on Jack Tatum, I discovered something I didn't know: lots of Raiders fans believe “the media” holds a bias against their beloved team. And to find an example of this alleged bias year-after-year look no further than the Hall of Fame. Oakland fans swear that anti-Raider bias is the only thing keeping otherwise qualified Raiders from induction into the hallowed halls of the Hall. Of course Past Interference just had to check this out. I might be a Raider-hater of long standing but PI is nothing if not fair and PI knows a great player’s a great player even if that player (shudder) wears the Silver and Black.  Please be seated Raiders fans, I have read your complaints.  The various cases seem to boil down to a total of 8 players and 1 coach who Oakland fans insist have been denied the game’s greatest honor by biased sportswriters. Are the arguments legit? PI is on the case. Let’s start with these four men:

1) Cliff Branch: I’d love to see Cliff Branch in the Hall. He was one of my favorite players, very underrated, and for a three-year stretch (1974-1976) he was as dominant in his time as Jerry Rice was later on. Of course Rice dominated for well over a decade while Branch was just a good solid receiver after his short run of greatness ended. But if a receiver has to be as good as Jerry Rice to make the Hall then no more receivers are ever getting in. Branch made three AP All-Pro teams, something very few wideouts have ever matched or bettered. If you compare Branch’s career stats to some of his Hall of Fame contemporaries he’s better than Lynn Swann and quite comparable to John Stallworth and Fred Biletnikoff. So why isn’t Branch in?

Well, it’s not anti-Raider bias. It’s statistical bias. NFL passing rules changed in the twilight of Branch’s career, offenses adjusted to take advantage, and for a quarter century now passing and receiving numbers have moved ever upward. Branch’s numbers looked great in his time but look fairly pedestrian now if you don’t make the proper adjustments. Branch dominated at the very height of football’s deadball era. By the time he was eligible for induction, a new generation of receivers (led by Rice) was blowing away Branch’s numbers. Biletnikoff got in before the new era took off and Swann’s and Stallworth’s candidacies got boosts from tremendous Super Bowl performances. But while Branch might not have transcended on the Super Bowl stage like the Steeler duo he did play for three Super Bowl-winning teams himself and caught three TD’s, none in which came in garbage time. And he played in 19 total postseason games and his numbers are pretty good.

So should he be in? Well, it all depends on how you look at the receivers of his time. They just weren’t used as much as they are today. That’s not Branch’s fault. If you do think the best receivers of each era should be treated the same then Branch is very deserving. You can make a case he was the best receiver of the 70’s depending on how much of a premium you put on peak performance. To me he’s got as good a case as Swann, Stallworth and Biletnikoff. But, if you’re going put him in, it should be scheduled after Harold Jackson’s long-overdue induction.

2) Tim Brown: Brown’s case for the Hall is the opposite of Branch’s. Branch has All-Pro selections, big postseason performances, and three rings. Brown’s just got one thing-- numbers. If someone would have told me 20 years ago that an receiver with over 1000 catches, 101 TD’s, and close to 15,000 receiving yards would not be an automatic first ballot Hall of Famer, I would have thought that person was completely insane. Yet here we are. Tim Brown retired with those numbers and was not selected in his first year of eligibility.

Anti-Raider bias? Not hardly. More like Jerry Rice bias. Rice retired the same year Brown did and the voters probably didn’t want to vote in more than one WR in 2010. That doesn’t mean Brown is a lock to make it in the future however. Cris Carter’s been bypassed three years running now and he’s got more catches and TD’s (30 more to be exact) than Brown. As the trend towards bigger passing numbers continues nobody really knows just how impressive Brown’s numbers are going to look in a few more years. Football writer and HOF voter Peter King wrote recently about how the once incredible 1000-catch mark may soon be surpassed by a number of players.  So should Brown get in? Well, he never made an All-Pro team and when he was in his prime I never considered him to be on the level of Rice, Irvin, Carter, Shannon Sharpe, or even the Marks Brothers. His longevity is impressive but he never had a single season that blew anybody away. He can’t get in before Carter and if Brown doesn’t get in very soon he might have some trouble getting in at all as he’ll continue to drop on the all-time leaderboards.

3) Todd Christensen: You know, after going back and looking at his stats I have to say there’s no doubt Todd Christensen’s been unjustly forgotten for some unknown reason. Let’s do a quick comparison with the best of his Hall of Fame contemporaries, all Hall of Famers.

Tight EndRecYdsTD

Taking only career totals into consideration, Newsome's and Winslow’s numbers are clearly better. Christensen’s numbers superficially appear better than Casper’s but Casper’s peak was in the mid-70’s and so his best years were just as impressive as Christensen’s were in the 80’s. Plus Casper was considered a great blocker. Unlike Newsome, who had the opposite rep to say the least. 

But if you look at just the best seasons of Newsome and Christensen you could certainly make a case that Christensen was the better player Newsome.  Newsome made one All-Pro team and three Pro Bowls.  But Christensen made two All-Pro teams and five Pro Bowls.  Plus Christensen should get a little credit for being a key component of a championship team, the 1983 Raiders.  So why Ozzie and not Todd?  It’s probably the relative shortness of Christensen’s career. Christensen had a ten-year career but he didn’t start a game for his first three seasons. He didn't catch a single pass in his first two and only caught 8 in his third year.  On the other end he only started five games in his last season. So really he only started regularly for six seasons. He had a dominant five-year run in that time but it’s still only six seasons. Even if Newsome’s best seasons aren’t quite as good as Christensen’s, Newsome had more good seasons and was at least a solid contributor in his later years. Also, Christensen’s also been hurt by a couple of guys who came later, Shannon Sharpe and Tony Gonzalez. Christensen’s 90-catch, 1000-yard seasons as a tight end don’t seem as jaw-dropping.

If you’ve got a little time, or are already bored with this post, just go here to read a really good list of the top 10 greatest tight ends of all-time. The writer makes a convincing case for Christensen as number 8, one ahead of Newsome.

If you buy that, and think there's room for the top 8 tight ends,  then Christensen has a solid argument for the Hall of Fame.

4) Tom Flores: Flores’ number one accomplishment was coaching the Raiders to two Super Bowl wins but two titles doesn’t make a coach a Hall of Famee. George Seifert’s got two also. So does Jimmy Johnson and Jimmy’s got a higher career winning percentage as well. Buddy Parker won two titles with the Lions back n the 50’s and hasn't made the Hall. Flores’ career winning percentage is lower than any current HOF coach except for Weeb Ewbank but Ewbank’s got three rings and some other historical accomplishments Flores can’t match. Rightly or wrongly Flores, like Seifert, is probably also seen as a coach who inherited an already talented team capable of winning a Super Bowl. I doubt he ever gets in and the fact his predecessor as coach, John Madden, did get in should put the lie to any charges of anti-Raider bias here.


J.A. Morris said...

I agree with you about every one of these guys.

It's funny how time and the changes of the game change our perceptions of players.
I remember the Sports sections and magazines counting down Charlie Joyner's(sorry,another hero of That Game)pursuit of Charlie Taylor's receptions record. Taylor had 649 catches,neither he nor Joiner is considered an "all-time great" at this point,but they're both in the HOF.

J.A. Morris said...

Screwed up my last comment,also meant to post this:
If I had a vote,I'd vote for Branch and Brown. You said all that needs to be said about Branch. As for Brown,I think he's longevity and Pro-Bowl appearances should be taken into account when evaluating his career. Besides his receiving stats,when you add his punt,kick-off returns and rushing yards,he's got 19,679 all purpose yards. He ranks #5 all-time in that category.
I should mention I hate the Raiders too. My two favorite teams growing up were the Dolphins(they always beat Miami when I was a kid) and (due to my time spent living in the Mountain States)the Broncos.