On Monday night at halftime of the game against the Dolphins, the membership in the Jets' Ring of Honor will swell to 10 with the induction of the four members of the Class of 2011 — LB Larry Grantham, RB Freeman McNeil, DE Gerry Philbin and WR Al Toon. Over five days we'll present a profile on each player along with a slideshow recalling their playing careers and audio of a news conference each player had with reporters this past week. Today: Gerry Philbin.
Many key pieces were being added to the Jets' defense as they grew into the underrated but overpowering force that would team up with the offense and specialists to form the Super Bowl III champions.
The names roll mellifluously off a veteran Jets fan's tongue: Atkinson, Grantham, Baker, Sample, Beverly, Hudson, Baird, Biggs, Elliott, Rochester.
And at the left end of the line, last but not least, was the inescapable Gerry Philbin.
"Football was different back in those days," Philbin said this week as he recalled the group he helped propel to greatness all while the group was helping move him toward Jets Ring of Honor status more than 40 years later. "What was great about it was we were able to play as a unit for so long and play together. I think just knowing one another, playing with one another for that amount of time was a great catalyst."
Catalysts come in all shapes and sizes, and Philbin was a different breed of cat for defensive end, even in those days. He stood 6'2" and 245 pounds and even though offensive tackles were smaller, too, back then, it must have looked as if most could have swallowed him up for a game at a time.
Yeah, just try.
No Letup the Entire Game
"When you talk about a relentless motor and that Jet mentality, that was Gerry Philbin," said Jets head coach Rex Ryan, who lists Philbin as one of his three all-time favorite Jets from that 1968 team he hung out with while his father, Buddy, coached up Weeb Ewbank's defensive line.
"I remember my dad telling the story about him going up against Bob Brown, who was a Hall of Fame tackle who was mean as he could be. He was having a good day against Philbin, but Philbin just kept coming, kept coming. At the end of the game, Gerry got back-to-back sacks and the Jets won. It was one of those deals where he was so relentless, he never let up the entire game. If you weren't at your best, he was going to beat you."
That was in the early Seventies, when "Boomer" Brown had moved to the Raiders. In the late Sixties, though, Philbin was not only relentless but he was nearly unstoppable by any tackle. In that 1968 Jets season, Philbin came off the edge for 19 sacks. NFL defensive sack totals before 1982 remain unofficial, but Philbin's season was one of the most unheralded super seasons of pass-rushing not only in franchise annals but in the pro game's history.
Let's take the 19 sacks at face value. It gave Philbin, who started all 14 games that year, an average of 1.36 sacks a game. The best average in Jets history belongs to Mark Gastineau, who averaged 1.38 sacks per game when he set the NFL's official sack record of 22 in 1984. Others in the league have surpassed that figure but not by much. Michael Strahan's record-breaking 22.5-sack season in 2001 averages out to 1.41 a game. Reggie White soars above the crowd with his 1.75 average (21 sacks in 12 games) during the 1987 strike season.
"I had a unique style to rush the passer," Philbin remembered. "I liked to do the spin move on the inside a lot. I think the quickness helped me, not being as big as some of the linemen."
Philbin also credits his fellow front-seven mates. His D-line included RE Verlon Biggs and DTs John Elliott and Paul Rochester. The linebackers that patrolled behind it were Larry Grantham — a fellow member of the Ring's Class of '11 — Al Atkinson and Ralph Baker.
"We knew one another for a while," Philbin said, "and we had great camaraderie."
And some great pass-rush numbers. Before the Sack Exchange arrived on the scene, Philbin, Biggs and Elliott combined, over roughly the same timeframe, for 160.5 sacks, with Philbin leading the way with 64.5 sacks in his nine seasons of wearing No. 81. That was the Jets' top sack figure until Gastineau and Joe Klecko came along and then, in the first decade of the new millennium, Shaun Ellis. But it's still good for fourth on the franchise's all-time list.
"120 Percent Every Play"
Rushing the QB wasn't the only thing Philbin did great, not by a long shot.
"I always remember Gerry down on the goal line," said Grantham. "He'd always get penetration and that would really help stop any kind of running play to his side. He rushed the passer great, he played the run great, and he gave you 120 percent every play."
Philbin played in the AFL All-Star Game and was named AFL All-Pro after both the '68 and '69 seasons. And once the AFL fully merged with the NFL for the 1970 season, one of its last acts was to select its All-Time Team. On the first team at left defensive end was Gerald John Philbin.
Philbin has at least one other claim to football fame, which was knowing the Ryans all the way back in the early Sixties, when he first ran into Buddy Ryan as a coach when he was a player at the University of Buffalo.
"I think Buddy was the defensive coordinator at the time," Rex said, "and when Weeb Ewbank was looking for a D-line coach, Philbin's the guy that recommended my dad. That's how the Ryans got into professional football."
Now Philbin, 70, has been out of the game for a while. He had been living in his native New England, up in New Hampshire, until he moved down to the Palm Beach area in Florida several months ago.
"The cold weather was too much for me there," he said with a raspy laugh. "Now I come down here and catch a cold. I can't believe it."
It's expected to be a little chilly in the Meadowlands, around the 50° mark, on Monday night when the Jets' second class of Ring of Honor inductees stride out to midfield at MetLife Stadium. But for Philbin, vivid memories and the fans' applause for his relentless motor will warm his night just fine.
Sunday: Freeman McNeil