When the Jets needed a runner stopped, it was Kyle Clifton chasing the ball down and dragging its carrier to the ground. He was the barbarian Gang Green needed to establish a respectable defensive presence throughout those grim seasons between the New York Sack Exchange’s dominance and the arrival of Bill Parcells.
The 13-year linebacker spent his entire career with the Jets, an accomplishment for any player in any sport, but an even more admirable feat of strength when considering the fate of some of those Jets teams fielded in the 1980s and 90s.
Clifton was a third-round draft pick in 1984 and spent his 13 seasons mastering the linebacker role from different spots while adapting to new defensive schemes with new coaches. Today, a shift in defensive alignments and philosophies is usually catastrophic and requires an overhaul in personnel. That wasn’t the case for Clifton.
When former head coach Bruce Coslet took over the Jets in 1990, he scrapped the 3-4 alignment and returned the team to a 4-3. Linebacker roles change drastically in these alignments, but Clifton wasn’t a concern for Coslet.
“Kyle has probably adapted faster than anybody, but that’s just the type of guy that he is. He’s smart,” Coslet told the New York Times in 1991. “He’s been through the wars before and that type of thing, but he’s better than he was last year. He’s an integral part of our defense. He’s our defensive captain, our middle linebacker and a pretty impressive guy.”
Clifton retired in 1997, leaving the game with 1,468 tackles (including a team-high 199 in 1989), 5.5 sacks, 12 interceptions, 13 forced fumbles, and 15 fumbles recovered. In fact, Clifton notched more than 160 tackles five times in his career, finishing below 143 in only his rookie year, an injury-plagued 1987 season, and after he started supporting incoming rookies at the tail-end of his career.
Clifton’s numbers and production are a testament to his ability around the ball and his disruptive efforts to an opponents’ rhythm.
NO QUITTING IN HIM
There were only three playoff berths in Clifton’s career (1985, 1986, and the 8-8 1991 team) and second team All-Pro honors in 1986, but no Pro Bowls and no MVPs and no glory. He was just a defensive captain, an honor he earned as a reliable tackler who never missed a game (except in 1987 when the league fielded replacement players).
You try to avoid clichés about loving the game and being a pure, hard-working, blue-collar football player. But these clichés exist because there are players who genuinely exhibit traits to set that standard. Clifton more than qualifies, because most people can’t endure 13 fruitless seasons and claim they love coming to work every day en route to an 82-124-1 finish.
But that’s what Clifton did each week and each season, and he kept doing it while the writing was supposed to be on the wall for him and his career.
The Jets drafted Marvin Jones in 1993, their linebacker for the future and catalyst for a defensive youth movement that would carry into the Parcells era alongside Mo Lewis. In fact, Clifton was supposed to be on his way out in 1991 when the Jets selected Lewis. But the linebacker endured and remained, and gave his all to contribute rather than be regarded as just a lingering presence.
When Jones was injured in his rookie season, Clifton was the veteran digging his cleats into the dirt and doing all he could to send the Jets back to the playoffs.
In December 1993, Clifton dominated the frozen field at Rich Stadium to notch 11 tackles, a pick, and a forced fumble against the Bills in an effort to keep the Jets’ playoff hopes alive. Gang Green lost that game, in large part to three missed field goals, and all Clifton could remember was “we didn’t win.”
Jennifer Frey of the New York Times wrote:
It should have been satisfying for Clifton to have such a marvelous performance in such a big game. The performance should have been his personal “I told you so.” But it wasn’t. Clifton doesn’t want to save today’s game tape, he wants to burn it.
“The first thing I think about is the plays that I should have done better,” Clifton said. “Right now, I can tell you almost everything I did not do very well. That’s what I’m thinking about.”
LONGEVITY AND HONOR
While the Jets looked to improve in the 90s, Clifton’s presence was often a rallying point for the team. That was evident after the 1993 game against the Bills, when defensive players lamented the loss because they felt they let Clifton down. And it carried into the treacherous Rich Kotite seasons, where Clifton’s work ethic was a lone beacon of light illuminating the Jets’ 0-7 start.
With gray hairs enveloping Clifton in 1996, it was clear that he was far removed from the optimistic third-round pick selected out Texas-Christian in 1984. But, regardless of losing seasons and advancing age, Clifton remained in the weight room, still preparing himself for games that stopped being fun for everyone.
He transitioned from defensive captain in the early 90s to a special-teams captain under Kotite, a role adjustment most people can’t even wrap their heads around today. Most players would rather retire where Clifton only wanted to contribute. To be a special-teams captain at his age, filling roles often reserved for late-round draft picks and undrafted prospects, is the truest testament to what his presence meant for the Jets on the field and in the locker room.
You immediately think of linebackers, and most NFL players, whose contracts expire, forcing them to sign elsewhere for a chance at a richer opportunity and a promise of a starting role. Clifton played his final season earning the veteran minimum, a paltry $275,000 for the year, just to chase down kick returners on special teams.
“You do it for the guys,” Clifton told Michael Katz of the Daily News in 1996. “You feel you’re needed. You feel a part of something.”
It’s my honor to recognize Kyle Clifton as part of our Hall of Fame on TheJetsBlog.com, for being the man that embodied the spirit of a team while never letting losses drain him of his own.