In the early 1970s, the Raiders hit on two defensive ends in successive drafts (1970 and 1971) and after just a couple of years, they seemed to be set for years.
The Oakland Raiders took Tony Cline out of Miami (FL) in the 4th round (102nd overall) of the 1970 NFL Draft. Cline was a solid college defensive end (Named All-Independent Southeast by the AP in 1969) and likely got some notice playing on the same defense as Ted Hendricks we graduated a year before Cline and drew a slew of scouts.
Cline has as good a rookie year as any defensive end has ever had—58 tackles and 17.5 sacks, which would have been the rookie sack record had it been kept. To this day only Bubba Baker of the 1978 Lions has had more in his rookie season (23). The official record is held by Jevon Kearse with 14.5 in 1999 and followed by Aldon smith with 14.0 in 2011.
What was interesting is that as a rookie and some in the next year Cline was used as a bit of a rover, but really he'd stand up and played left outside linebacker converting the raiders 4-3 defense into a 3-4 front. It's a smart move if you have a guy that can do it. Thirteen years later Jack Reynolds tried to convince George Siefert and Bill Walsh to do the same thing with Fred Dean,. Reynold's thought he could really call some great things with the same eleven guys on the field but deploy them as a 3-4 or a 4-3 whenever he wanted to. With the 49ers it was not successful because Dean couldn't do the linebacking part of it. With the early 1970s Raiders, Cline could.
The next year the Silver and Black chose Louisville defensive tackle, Horace Jones, in the 12th round, and as a rookie, he filled in for an injured Cline at left end, started a game at defensive tackle, and then finished the season at right end with longtime right end Ben Davidson playing right tackle to make room for the young 'un. Additionally, he an Davidson would swap positions toward the end of the year with Jones inside and Davidson outside.
In 1972 with Cline settled in at left end and Jones at right end, they both had excellent seasons. Cline had 67 tackles, 7 stuffs, and 5 sacks and Jones really should have gone to the Pro Bowl with his 64-tackle, 9½ sack, and 16-run stuff performance (which was significantly better than AFC Pro Bowl regular Elvin Bethea). But it wasn't a time when those stats were available and often a player had to have a breakout season then the next season he got his just due.
The sixteen run stuffs is particularly rare. It certainly led the NFL and is one of the top totals we've found at PFJ since researching that stat. Example: In 2019 Brandon Graham led the NFL with 12; Jadeveon Clowney led in 2017 with 13.5; J.J. Watt had 16.5 in 2015; Jerome Brown had 17 in 1989; Jack Youngblood had 13.5 in 1973—these give you an idea of Jones' 1972 season.
The problem was Jones didn't get a shot at his just due in 1973. Bubba happened.
Al Davis always in love with defensive linemen was, apparently enamored with Bubba Smith who was coming off a very serious knee injury in 1972 where he got his knee ripped up when he got tangled in a yard-marker chain on the sideline in a preseason game and he missed the 1972 season.
The Colts, in rebuilding mode, were trading everyone away or just releasing them—Johnny Unitas, Tom Matte, Jerry Logan, Norm Bulaich, Charlie Stukes, Ray May, etc. and when the Raiders offered Raymond Chester, a healthy, young, fast tight end, the Colts must have jumped.
However, this gave the Raiders three defensive ends with two slots. Jones got the bench, spelling both Cline (who moved to right end so Bubba could have his usual left end position) and Smith.
However, Smith was just not up to snuff. He'd been a First- or Second-team All-Pro in 1970 and 1971 and was finally living up to his promise when taken with the number one overall pick in 1967 after three years of up-and-down play. It seems the Raiders were starting the wrong end in Smith and playing Cline in a position he was not familiar with.
However, the Raiders still played well enough to win and thanks to some near All-Pro play by the defensive tackle Art Thomas and Otis Sistrunk the line held its own. It does beg the question of how good they could have been had Jones been able to play more.
The next season, 1974, was more of the same. The Raiders were excellent a near-Super Bowl team and again the line played well, especially the interior, but the outside was still not up to the 1972 standards. Cline was injured and missed to whole season so Horace Jones played the full season but it was not up to his own 1972 level it seems.
In 1975, though Cline and Jones were the left- and right ends and they led the rush of what we think was the best Raider defense of the decade—ranking third overall and recording 55 sacks and a defensive passer rating of 37.2. Once again they were beaten by the Steelers in the playoffs but Cline and Jones sure got to the quarterback recording 11 and 13 sacks respectively.
In 1976 both Cline and Jones had knee injuries. Jones missed the season being put on the injured list, but in a move that puzzled the Bay Area media Cline was put on waiver and the 49ers snatched him right away. Maybe the Raiders, thinking teams would think he's more injured than he was would let him go through waivers. Whatever the thinking Cline was gone.
The issue was he went to the 49ers who were in the first year of the Gold Rush—a nickname given to one of the best pass-rushing defensive lines in history. After many years of playing the flex defense under Dick Nolan the new coach, Monte Clark hired Floyd Peters to coach the defensive line and they played the classic Rams/Viking type of defense-get after the quarterback and in it ends like Tommy Hart and Cedrick Hardman were turned loose. The 49ers also had a fine pair of young tackles as well, so there was no place for Cline to play. The 49ers totaled 61 sacks and Cline in spot duty had just one of them. he did fill in after Cedrick Hardman broke and ankle and missed the final two games.
Of course, the Raiders had the last laugh in that they finally won the Super Bowl going with a 3-4 defense (they'd run out of defensive linemen (Art Thoms also missed the 1976 season) so they just put more linebackers on the field).
In 1977 Jones was making a comeback try with the Raiders but was frustrated in the preseason. "I feel strong (but) I feel slow", he told reporters. Jones had rehabbed well, working with a trainer to get back to where he was before the knee blew out but he could tell he wasn't there.
The Raiders could tell as well. A couple of days after that interview he was waived and the Seahawks signed him. He played kind of signed. waived signed, yo-yo for Seattle got a chance to play against the Bucs, made a tackle, but the knee was never ready and in November Jones was put on injured reserve and his career was over.
He'd hoped to sign with someone for the 1978 season but in April was hospitalized with an infection in his surgically repaired knee and in the Summer he announced he was done with football.
Cline was done in 1978 as well, being waived by the 49ers in August after playing the same role in 1977 that he did in 1976—that of the third defensive end, spelling Hart and Hardman.
John Greenleaf Whittier wrote the poem "Maud Muller" which contains the line, "For of all sad words of tongue or pen, The saddest are these: 'It might have been!' "
If only the knees of Cline and Jones had held up what a defensive end tandem these two might have been. They both showed flashes of greatness, and both had a couple of legitimate All-Pro/Pro Bowl-type seasons but it just was not meant to be or simply didn't happen. It's just one big "That's too bad, it would have been fun to watch" thing.
Or as Howard Cosell used to say, "The Kn-ee. Al-ways th-e Kn-ee".