HENDERSON, Nev. -- Now that Tom Flores has been elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, more than 33 years after he coached his final game for the Raiders, fans of the Las Vegas Raiders are looking ahead to -- in their minds, at least -- righting some other wrongs. As in, who should be the next Raider to be enshrined in Canton?
Greedy, especially with Flores being suited for a gold jacket and sized for a bust alongside Charles Woodson, who was voted in as a first-ballot candidate, and with the Raiders getting 17 of their 28 recognized Hall of Famers being elected since 2000 (eight since 2013)?
Perhaps in some circles. But this is a fan base of an iconic organization that has felt slighted for years. Rightly or wrongly, it's in the DNA. As such, I posted a Twitter poll to see who fans think should be the next Raider to take his place in the Hall.
The late Cliff Branch was the runaway winner, with 61% of the 2,981 votes cast in the 24-hour poll, with quarterback Jim Plunkett a distant second (26%), cornerback Lester Hayes third (10.5%) and guard Steve Wisniewski (2.6%) fourth. And with the Twitter poll allowing for only four choices, tight end Todd Christensen, who died in 2013, received generous support in the poll's mentions, with late safety Jack Tatum and late center Dave Dalby also getting referenced.
A look, then, at the prospective cases of each former player.
WR Cliff Branch
Silver and Black: The late Branch's stats are equal to or better than contemporaries already in Canton, like Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, and two guys about to be enshrined this summer in Harold Carmichael and Drew Pearson. Based solely on those numbers -- Branch caught 501 passes for 8,685 yards for a 17.3 yards-per-catch average and 67 touchdowns and won three Super Bowl rings with the Raiders -- it is head scratching that he is not already enshrined. Especially when you consider that he had 165 more catches, 3,223 more yards and 16 more TDs than Swann, 12 more catches, 863 more yards and 19 more TDs than Pearson, four more TDs and two more first-team All-Pro selections than Stallworth and three more first-team All-Pro selections than Carmichael.
It's obvious there is a glaring hole in Canton from elite receivers who plied their trade in the 1970s. Raiders owner Mark Davis, who was best friends with Branch and once served as his agent in negotiations with his father, has made it a point of emphasis for the organization to promote Branch's candidacy, starting with the hashtag #CliffToCanton.
Silver and Blech: Branch, who never advanced beyond the semifinalist stage on the modern-era ballot, has come within one tie-breaking vote of being the lone candidate on the seniors ballot (which would have most certainly meant induction). He was one of 10 senior nominees on the 2020 Centennial Class ballot but was bypassed in favor of Carmichael, the lone receiver chosen in that vote by a special Blue-Ribbon committee that diluted the body of 48 selectors.
With Pearson going in as this year's seniors candidate, a year after his video-taped eruption over his being passed over in the Centennial Class went viral, it's hard to see the Hall's selectors putting in another receiver anytime soon, what with such a backlog of candidates at other positions. Plus, despite all of his accolades and being the epitome of the Raiders' vaunted vertical passing attack of the 1970s, Branch was not on the all-decade team and, in a weird way, could be a victim of so-called Raider fatigue, with so many former Raiders making their way to Canton in recent years.
QB Jim Plunkett
Silver and Black: The ultimate Lazarus/Cinderella Tale in NFL history, Plunkett is the only eligible quarterback in NFL history with multiple Super Bowl titles to not be enshrined in Canton. Truly, you cannot tell the story of the NFL without mentioning Plunkett, the first Latino quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Al Davis, in his later years, campaigned vigorously for Plunkett, the No. 1 pick of the 1971 NFL draft as the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. Rough years with the New England Patriots and San Francisco 49ers preceded him coming the bench to lead the Oakland to a Super Bowl XV title as the game's MVP and the 1980 comeback player of the year.
Three years later, the Raiders won again, this time while calling Los Angeles home. Stats-wise, his numbers are nearly identical, if not better than, Joe Namath's. Plunkett went 72-72 in his career while completing 52.5% of his passes for 25,882 yards with 164 TDs and 198 INTs for a 67.5 career passer rating. Namath was 62-63-4, completing 50.1% of his passes for 27,663 yards with 173 TDs and 220 INTs for a 65.5 career passer rating.
Silver and Blech: Plunkett was never an All-Pro, let alone a Pro Bowler. And the only time he led the NFL in a passing category was with 22 interceptions in 1974. His 385 yards lost on 39 sacks in 1972 also led the league. Still, his record 99-yard TD pass to Branch in 1983 at Washington will never be broken. He also twice led the NFL in fourth-quarter comebacks, with five and three in 1982 and 1983, respectively. Still, Plunkett's candidacy is in the hands of the Hall's seniors committee, and as mentioned before, there is a huge backlog of players there.
CB Lester Hayes
Silver and Black: One of, if not the most dominant cornerbacks in the NFL in his prime, Hayes was the NFL's defensive player of the year in 1980 with 13 interceptions, the most in the NFL since Dick "Night Train" Lane's 14 picks in 1952. Hayes had four more called back by penalty in 1980 and added five picks in the playoffs. If Fred Biletnikoff made Stick-um fashionable in the 1970s, "Judge" made it illegal in 1980. Yeah, the NFL banned the sticky substance the next year. Hayes played with the Raiders from 1977 through 1986 and in those 10 seasons, the converted linebacker/safety had 39 regular-season interceptions, which is still tied with the late Willie Brown for most in franchise history.
The Hall of Fame listed Hayes as second-team all-1980s, despite his not playing in the last three years of the decade. That's how dominant the self-described Jedi Knight of Silver and Blackdom had been. High-profile pick-sixes in the playoffs in the Super Bowl runs of 1980 (off the Houston Oilers' Ken Stabler) and 1983 (against the Pittsburgh Steelers' Cliff Stoudt) elevated his profile.
Silver and Blech: As dominant as Hayes was, he was only All-Pro once, in that otherworldly 1980 season. And as physical as he played, he often gets overlooked by the technical skill of his running mate Mike Haynes, who is already in Canton. Still, Hayes did go to five straight Pro Bowls, from 1980 through 1985. His "only" having four pick-sixes in the regular season may also be held against him (Charles Woodson, for example, had 11 such TDs in his career). Observers also point out that he averaged a little more than two interceptions a season after Stick-um was banned. Hayes has already been a four-time finalist on the modern-era ballot from 2001-04 and the senior committee must now take his case.
G Steve Wisniewski
Silver and Black: An institution at left guard for the Raiders from 1990 through 2001 (he played right guard as a rookie in 1989), Wisniewski was an eight-time Pro Bowler, which was tied for a Raiders franchise record at the time, and a two-time All-Pro at an undervalued position that is now getting additional recognition from Hall voters. Or have you missed Wiz's contemporaries at the position, Will Shields and Alan Faneca, being elected in recent years?
Wisniewski was on the Hall of Fame's second-team all-1990s squad, along with Hall of Famer Larry Allen and behind Hall of Famers Randall McDaniel and Bruce Matthews. Wisniewski did not miss a game from 1992 through 2001 and only missed two in his first three seasons. Indeed, one of the best at his position for his era and a semifinalist for Hall consideration for the class of 2014. What's the holdup, then?
Silver and Blech: Is there now a glut at guard in Canton that makes Wisniewski's path littered with roadblocks? As pointed out above, three of the Hall's four guards on its all-1990s team are already enshrined, with Wisniewski on the outside looking in. Plus, Wisniewski's Raiders teams never played in a Super Bowl, going a combined 4-5 in five playoff appearances, his last game the Tuck Rule affair. And does his being labeled as one of the dirtiest players in the game sway voters to look away? Should it? Teammates insist he simply played to the whistle.