Writing and researching these tributes is probably one of the most enjoyable processes connected with writing for this site. However, when faced with the opportunity to honor some of the men responsible for the Jets’ Superbowl win over 40 years ago, I do so with an added sense of pride and humility.
Two of the men largely responsible for the success of that team were defensive linemen John Elliott and Gerry Philbin. As with Matt Snell and Emerson Boozer, it seems fitting to induct these two together because of the way they played alongside one another for six years and remained close friends until Elliott sadly passed away last November.
While it was Joe Namath who garned most of the publicity of the time, their defense – anchored by its defensive line – was underrated. Elliott and Philbin, along with Verlon Biggs were referred to as “Great ones” by former defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. Biggs – who was enough of a force that he too might one day be considered for the TJB Hall of Fame – played with Elliott and Philbin for four seasons and had played across from Philbin for two years prior to that.
Between them, Elliott and Philbin played 195 games for the Jets. Other than a year at the end of Philbin’s career where he started six games for the Philadelphia Eagles, that comprised their entire AFL/NFL careers.
Let’s begin with Philbin, who was a third round draft choice in both the NFL and AFL drafts, but – having attended college in Buffalo, where he was a four year starter – decided to remain closer to home and join the Jets. Winless in the first six games of the Joe Namath era, the Jets rebounded to win five of their last eight and then built on that with a .500 season which ended with a win over the Patriots to deny them a place in the AFL Championship Game.
Over those first few seasons, it was Biggs who had the stronger reputation, being named an AFL All-Star in 1966 and 1967. Although he was named a first-team All-Pro by the NY Daily News and a second teamer by the UPI in 1967, Philbin didn’t earn his first All-Star selection until 1968, as his 19 sacks led the AFL and propelled the Jets into the postseason, where they would ultimately win the Superbowl. He was an All-Star again in 1969, as well as being a first team All-Pro for the second straight year.
Philbin was regarded as a fearsome pass rusher, who over the course of his nine-year Jets career, recorded 64.5 sacks. To put that into perspective, Shaun Ellis didn’t overtake that number until his tenth season, despite playing in an era where they play two more games per season. Philbin would eventually be named to the AFL All-Time Team.
Despite his reputation as a pass rusher, the role he played in the Jets’ Superbowl win was more of a run stopper. Although only credited with two tackles, Philbin held his ground well, even though the Colts kept running right at him. He did make one big play as a pass rusher, pressuring Earl Morrall into a third-down incompletion in the red zone after the Colts’ first drive, which ended with a missed field goal.
Although Philbin was no longer considered a Pro Bowler in the seventies, he still possessed playmaking ability, as evidenced by his performance against the Colts in 1972. Philbin had 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble, a huge tackle for a loss and multiple pressures as he displayed spin moves, relentlessness and great instincts.
Former Jets defensive co-ordinator Buddy Ryan was full of praise for Philbin:
“Gerry was a great one,” Buddy said. “He and the Chiefs’ Jerry Mays were the two defensive ends on the 10-year American Football League all-time team. The only other Jets on it were Joe Namath and Don Maynard. Gerry should be in the Hall of Fame, but I guess everybody can’t be in it.”
In fact, if it wasn’t for Philbin, Buddy Ryan might never have been hired by the Jets.
“I like to think I had a part in getting Buddy into pro football,” Philbin recalled. “We hired him when I was going into my fifth year with the Jets. Weeb Ewbank brought me in and asked me about bringing in this guy from College of the Pacific. He was my old coach from Buffalo. I had nothing but the best to say about Buddy. I said he’d be a great coach in pro football.”
Though Buddy’s hiring paid immediate dividends for the Jets, it has a wider-reaching impact, which is felt today. Rex and Rob Ryan, Buddy’s six-year old sons, who Philbin first saw in their crib when he had dinner at Buddy’s house while at Buffalo, would show up to practice and practice tackling each other, much to Weeb Ewbank’s amusement. Rex would spend a lot of time hanging around the linemen, with Philbin and Winston Hill apparently being his “favorite” players. Although he didn’t know it at the time, these memories had a profound effect upon where he most wanted to coach in the NFL, so perhaps without Philbin, there would have been no Rex Ryan in the Jets’ future.
After his career ended, Philbin went through some tough times, almost drowning in 1983 and then, later that year, appearing in court as one of two principal partners of a Sand and Gravel firm in a manslaughter case. However, he rebounded and by 1990 was president of a recycling firm in Long Island. He is often seen at Jets nostalgia events, ceremonies and reunions.
It’s no coincidence that Philbin’s most productive years coincided with when Elliott was on the team. A gentle man, known to family and friends as “Big John”, Elliott displayed outstanding quickness and determination and needed to be accounted for on every play otherwise he was a threat to blow it up.
Elliott was drafted in the seventh round out of Texas and it didn’t take long for him to make an impact. He went to the AFL All-Star Game in his second season, as the Jets won the Superbowl, then returned there in the following season. After the Jets joined the NFL in 1970, he was an All-Pro for the third straight year and became the first Jet to play in the Pro Bowl, along with Tackle Winston Hill.
Elliott had 48 sacks in seven seasons as a Jet, including 15 in 1970 as he led the team and was named as the team’s MVP. To emphasize how long ago that was, Elliott was rewarded with a $24,000 salary. In 2011, Darrelle Revis will effectively earn $26,042 per MINUTE.
Despite his pass rushing prowess, in the Superbowl win, he too pitched in more in terms of stopping the run, recording four tackles, underscoring the fact that although Philbin and Elliott were playmakers, they were prepared to do things like set the edge or engage blockers if that’s what was required of them to win.
He later revealed that the Jets hadn’t planned to win the game and, since no parties had been organized, he was back in bed by midnight. The next morning, as the last to leave the hotel, a staff member gave him the trophy, which had almost been left behind. He took it back and presented it to the team, admitting that this was the only time he got his hands on the trophy.
In watching old footage of Elliott, it is clear that – despite his “Big John” moniker – he was undersized as a tackle. However, he overcame this and made himself a force by having an inate ability to read the play and using his terrific quickness to get off blocks and shoot gaps. In a 1970 game against Cleveland, Philbin was out, which meant Elliott had to deal with constant double teams. However, he still was able to get penetration and made it through to the quarterback several times due to his quickness, which was also on display when he pursued a runner out to the sideline or dropped into coverage in the flat.
Elliott is yet another example of a Jets player that is underappreciated by the mass media, but his teammates appreciated his abilities:
“He doesn’t get the notoriety he deserves,” said Pete Lammons, a teammate to Elliott at UT and with the Jets who lives in Houston. “For a period of time he was as good a defensive tackle as there was in the game, either in the AFL or NFL. We all thought very highly of him.”
Sadly, Elliott died of cancer in Houston last November. This article from the official Jets website contains some personal tributes from friends, teammates and family members in the comments section, which underscore what a great person he was.
However, it’s together that we choose to recognize these two outstanding players as TJB Hall of Famers. Congratulations to both men.