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Josh McDaniels pays homage to Cliff Branch with opening call

Updated August 5, 2022 - 6:31 pm

CANTON, Ohio — As the first play of the first preseason game, the call Josh McDaniels and the Raiders dialed up on Thursday seemed conspicuous.

Taking a deep shot down the field, especially after a 40-minute delay to start the game, likely wasn’t what anyone expected for a team that has been in training camp for just more than two weeks.

It was conspicuous alright. But for good reason. And, no, McDaniels wasn’t trying to catch the Jaguars sleeping by attacking them on the game’s opening play.

In retrospect, all anyone had to do was remember the setting. More importantly, the occasion and significance of the Raiders’ trip to Canton.

They were here, after all, as ambassadors of a much bigger deal than a season-opening preseason game. That being the enshrinement of Raiders great Cliff Branch to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.

Branch was known for his speed and ability to stretch the field. And that style came to define the Raiders’ offensive philosophy.

McDaniels, who grew up in Canton and is a noted football nerd with a keen sense of history, was not going to let the moment pass without providing his own tip of the cap to Branch, the late Al Davis, whose love of the long ball was well known, and current owner Mark Davis.

The younger Davis and Branch were best friends, and Davis fought the long fight to get Branch into the Hall of Fame.

And so, on the first play of the season, he had quarterback Jarrett Stidham take a deep drop and throw a bomb to Keelan Cole. McDaniels had two people in mind when calling the play.

“Cliff Branch and Mr. Davis,” McDaniels said Friday, smiling.

The play didn’t go off as planned. Stidham got hit just as he launched the pass, resulting in an underthrown ball. Cole had to come back for the ball, which meant he wasn’t able to catch it in stride and potentially take off for the end zone.

The play covered 31 yards rather than 75 yards and a touchdown. However, it also resulted in a roughing the passer call, which added an additional 15 yards to the total. That ended up putting the Raiders in position to kick a field goal on their opening drive.

Between the call, and the total yards covered, it was right out of the Raiders’ long-time playbook. And that was the point.

“That was a staple,” McDaniels said. “Cliff was a fast guy, obviously made a bunch of big plays in his career, big, important plays in big, important games, and that’s why he’s going into the Hall of Fame.”

It also offered a peek into a side of McDaniels that might surprise some people.

McDaniels has brought discipline and accountability to the Raiders. But in spite of the perception as the no-nonsense, long-time assistant to Bill Belichick in New England, there is a side of McDaniels that likes to have fun.

As Thursday showed, he isn’t afraid to show that about himself even in the ultra-serious setting of a game he is coaching. Above all, he understood the impact of the moment on the franchise.

“I know Mr. Davis — both Mr. Davises — are big fans of the long ball,” McDaniels said. “So, yes, that was an ode to the Raiders, Cliff Branch and the way that Mr. Davis — both of them — enjoy that type of play.”

Contact Vincent Bonsignore at vbonsignore@reviewjournal.com. Follow @VinnyBonsignore on Twitter.

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