Now that Tom Flores was rightfully inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, let’s take a look at which Raider greats are next in line.
Before some guy named Jerry Rice came along, it was Cliff Branch that held the NFL postseason record for receptions and receiving yards. That’s some pretty elite company for a 4th round pick out of Colorado in 1972 that was considered a major project. Early on, Branch had a penchant for dropping passes, arguably the worst quality for a wide receiver to possess (no pun intended). It took him a full two seasons to learn the nuances of the pro game.
In 1974, Branch exploded onto the scene. He went on to lead the NFL in receiving yards and TDs. Branch earned four straight Pro Bowl selections (1974-1977) and three First Team All-Pro honors. In 1976, he led the NFL in receiving touchdowns once more. Not to mention, Branch also played an instrumental role in three Super Bowl victories.
His impact on the game cannot be measured by mere stats. He changed the way offense was played in the NFL, much like “Bullet Bob” Hayes did for the Cowboys. Branch had better numbers, made more impactful plays than his contemporaries, yet he still hasn’t been enshrined into the Hall of Fame.
Plunkett redefined the term “reclamation project.” He went from winning the Heisman Trophy in 1970 to the first overall pick in the 1971 NFL Draft, winning AFC Rookie of the Year, to being out of football in 1978. Al Davis signed Plunkett after the San Francisco 49ers released him during the preseason that year. He sat for two seasons while he rehabilitated himself physically and mentally.
During the 1980 season, starting QB Dan Pastorini broke his leg in a Week 5 matchup against the hated Kansas City Chiefs. Plunkett took over the reins and never relinquished them. He rode the wave of momentum all the way to winning Super Bowl XV vs. the Philadelphia Eagles and earned the game’s MVP honor.
Jim went on to win Super Bowl XVIII three years later. Compared to his contemporaries, Plunkett’s stats are not overly impressive, and he turned the ball over frequently. His detractors consistently make this argument for denying him entrance. Of the potential finalists the Raiders have had, he’s by far and away the most controversial choice. He doesn’t have the mind-numbing statistics nor the flashy splash plays. What he does have are two Super Bowl wins as a starter, and he’s the only QB in NFL history to win two without being in the Hall of Fame. It’s time for that to change.
For 13 seasons, “The Wiz” personified toughness, grit, and determination. He carried over the legacy of stalwart Raiders offensive linemen like Jim Otto, Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, and Bob “Boomer” Brown. During his tenure, he earned eight Pro Bowl nods, two First Team All-Pro honors, six Second Team All-Pro honors, and a spot on the 1990s All-Decade Team.
Known for playing until the whistle, it was a requirement for defenders to keep their heads on a swivel when Wisniewski was on the other side of the ball. Wiz was a scrapper, and he would bring it for an entire 60 minutes. Forearm shivers into the back of a defender on a pile were commonplace.
Never one to shy away from a skirmish, Wiz would often be the first one to come to a teammate’s aide. As a testament to his resolve, he only missed two games due to injury his entire career. Wisniewski didn’t play a glamor position, but that shouldn’t preclude him from earning a gold jacket. The other three guards on the All-Decade Team are all in the Hall of Fame (Larry Allen, Bruce Matthews, and Randall McDaniel). There’s no doubt that he should be too.
Some called him “Lester the Molester” for the way he played tight man coverage. Some called him “The Judge.” The latter came from a statement he made in college before facing the University of Texas all-world running back Earl Campbell. He claimed that his defense was going to hold court against Campbell, and he sentenced him to 2 yards on 20 carries.
Lester was a 5th round pick out of Texas A&M in 1977. He primarily played linebacker and safety with the Aggies. Raiders owner Al Davis wanted to try Hayes at cornerback instead. Hayes was a big corner, listed at 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the NFL didn’t feature receivers that resembled NBA power forwards like it does today. Most receivers were below 6 feet tall. Davis wanted to smother the smaller receivers with big physical corners on the outside. This would allow his fierce pass rush to get to the quarterback before the receivers broke free.
Hayes was known for his extensive use of a tacky goo substance called Stickum. He would slather it all over his hands. As his career progressed, so did his use of it. By 1980, his entire uniform would be absolutely covered in it. It could be found smeared on his jersey, the inside of his socks, his helmet, and all over the football. Lester never needed the adhesive; it was purely a mental thing, but it became a part of his legend. So much so, that in 1981 the NFL implemented the “Lester Hayes Rule” outlawing the use of it completely.
Speaking of 1980, Hayes would go on to have arguably the finest season experienced by a cornerback in NFL history. During the regular season, he tallied 13 interceptions and 1 TD, with an additional 4 negated by penalty. During the postseason he racked up another 5 interceptions and 1 more TD. That’s 18 interceptions and 2 TDs. He basically had a career in one year.
In 10 seasons all with the Raiders, Hayes earned two Super Bowl trophies, five straight Pro Bowl selections (1980-1984), one First Team All-Pro honor, five Second Team All-Pro honors, 1980 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and a spot on the NFL’s 1980 All-Decade Team.
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