We continue TJB Hall of Fame week with our third inductee of the week, Shaun Ellis, who played for the Jets for 11 years and made it to two pro bowls. Stay tuned for the final selection of this year’s class tomorrow.
Jake Steinberg, TheJetsBlog.com
In the 2000 draft, with the Baltimore Ravens on the clock at pick No. 10, a young defensive line coach by the name of Rex Ryan was begging the front office to select a lineman out of the University of Tennessee by the name of Shaun Ellis.
After winning the first ever BCS National Championship in 1998 as a junior, Ellis came back for his senior year where he earned All-SEC honors his senior season. Ryan had seen enough film on the kid to believe he truly had what it took to be a star in the league. Unfortunately for the Ravens, (and fortunately for us), Ozzie Newsome and his staff ignored Ryan and selected Florida WR Travis Taylor. Ryan, little did he know, would one day get the opportunity to coach Ellis, albeit late in his career.
Jets general manager Bill Parcells had a plethora of draft picks (4) to work with that year. With many expecting him to wheel and deal, he instead held on to all four, selecting Ellis first at No. 11 before adding John Abraham, Chad Pennington and Anthony Becht later on.
Right out the gate, Ellis – nicknamed “Big Katt” – had 8.5 sacks as a rookie in Mike Nolan’s defense, despite only starting three games that year. That would be the second most ever for a Jets rookie, behind Hugh Douglas, who had recorded 10 in 1995.
After his rookie year, the front office and coaching staff had a major shake-up, with head coach Al Groh and defensive coordinator Mike Nolan leaving. As such, the 3-4 defense that Ellis thrived in as a rookie was no longer. In came Ted Cottrell and Herm Edwards, known for running a 4-3. With a new playbook and new regime, it took Ellis a few years to get comfortable in the new scheme as they even experimented unsuccessfully with converting him to defensive tackle at one stage. However, such was his nature, even with the slight decline in production in the beginning, he never complained, never wavered, just put his head down and came in to work every day.
Finally, in 2003, Ellis had his breakout season and became the player Jets personnel and fans were expecting when they selected him in the first round three years prior. “He started to buy into it,” Edwards said. “You could see mentally that he was focusing in.” Ellis opened the season by recording a sack in each of the first eight games of the season, only seeing his production slip after linemate Abraham got hurt, forcing Ellis to have to deal with more double teams. Ellis still finished the season with 12.5 sacks, earning him a trip to the Pro Bowl.
Midway through the 2004 season, with Ellis’ contract expiring at the end of the season, rumors began swirling that Parcells, now in Dallas, would go after him. Thus, to keep him and thank him for his efforts, the Jets on November 30, 2004 gave Ellis a 6-year contract extension with $15 million guaranteed. Ellis repaid the club’s confidence by again registering double-digit sacks as only four NFL players had more sacks over the two year period from 2003 to 2004.
Three of his team-leading 11 sacks came when his teammates needed him most, in Week 17 against the Rams. With a playoff berth on the line, Ellis came up huge, sacking Marc Bulger. Although the Jets ended up losing the game in overtime but made the postseason anyway courtesy of a Bills loss, Ellis’ effort that day personified the type of player he was, and foreshadowed what was to come in future years. When big moments arrived, regardless of the opponent, you could guarantee Shaun Ellis would show up.
2005 was a difficult year for the Jets, with Brooks Bollinger, 42-year-old Vinny Testaverde, Jay Fiedler, and even Kliff Kingsbury seeing time at quarterback. As such, the team struggled mightily, but once again Ellis remained a force on the line.
The following season, with Eric Mangini and his 3-4 defense now in town and Ellis on his third coach with the Jets, he once again came up huge in the most pivotal spot. Week 10, with the Patriots on the Jets 46-yard line in the closing moments, Tom Brady had one last shot. As he dropped back in the pocket, Ellis got past his blocker and sacked Brady to end the game. Once again, in the biggest moment against the biggest rival, he showed up.
That sack catapulted the Jets to a 5-2 finish, which lead to a wild-card berth. Although they ended up losing to the Pats in the first round, once again it was Ellis’ heart and hustle that helped spark the Jets.
After finishing that season with 5.0 sacks, he returned in 2007 with another 5.0 sacks, even spending some time operating as an outside linebacker. While Ellis flashed consistent dominance as a pass rusher, throughout all this he was predominately the Jets best-run stopper as well.
Obviously Brett Favre’s collapse of 2008 was a year to forget, but many people fail to remember that when the Jets were riding high, it was thanks to Shaun Ellis. Week 15 against the Buffalo Bills, the Jets were down with under two minutes to go. For whatever reason, Bills quarterback JP Losman went back to throw on third down instead of handing the ball off to Fred Jackson to waste clock. Abe Elam came on the safety blitz, and got there just in time to cause the fumble. And who should return it for an 11-yard game-winning touchdown? Shaun Ellis of course, once again stepping up at the biggest possible moment. Sure, you could say he was in the right place in the right time. But it was fitting, as the Jets moved to a 9-5 record, the Shaun Ellis would be the one to clinch the game for them with arguably the signature play of his career.
After the Jets Week 17 loss to the Dolphins, Woody Johnson decided to fire Mangini. Ellis would now be on his fourth coach as a member of the Jets. As we now know, that man would be the same one who nine years earlier was banging on the table to coach him in Baltimore.
In 2009, on a defense led by the likes of David Harris and Bart Scott, it would be Ellis who not only led the Jets in sacks, but represented them in the Pro Bowl. This season made Ellis the longest tenured Jet and Ryan was at last able to fulfil a promise he made many years earlier of using Ellis to the best of his ability, switching him all around the defensive line. That resulted in Ellis recording 56 tackles (30 solo), 6.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and two passes defensed.
2010 would prove to be Ellis’ final year with the Jets and he would leave with a bang. Ellis had one of the signature games of his career, sacking Brady twice to lead the Jets to a memorable postseason upset over the Patriots.
While Ellis eventually went on to join the Patriots for the 2011 season, he will be remembered as a leader both on and off the field. The way he mentored the likes of Sione Po’uha and Mike Devito will not soon be forgotten. To this day, Ellis, who has played in more games than any other Jets defensive lineman in history, ranks 3rd on the all-time Jets sack list, and has appeared in more Jets playoff games than any other player in franchise history.
I’m honored to induct one of the most underrated NFL players of the past decade into the 2014 TJB HOF Class.