State Your Case: Remembering when Gerry Philbin and the Jets ruled the world
When people talk about the American Football League’s greatest defensive ends, they almost never begin with the New York Jets’ Gerry Philbin.
Sometimes they never end with him, either.
They might mention the Chargers’ Earl Faison. Or Kansas City’s Jerry Mays. Or maybe the Bills’ Ron McDole or Denver’s Rich Jackson. But seldom Philbin, and that’s puzzling.
The guy played in the media capital of the world. He once produced an unofficial 19 sacks in a 14-game season. He was part of the greatest upset in Super Bowl history. And he was named first-team defensive end on the All-AFL squad.
Ahead of Faison. Ahead of McDole. Ahead of Jackson.
Maybe that surprises you. But it didn't Weeb Ewbank. As head coach of the Jets, he once was asked by a reporter to name the AFL’s top defensive end -- and he didn’t start with any of those players. He began … and ended … with Gerry Philbin.
“I wouldn’t trade Philbin for any of them,” he said.
“Nobody mentioned him,” the reporter said.
“I did,” said Ewbank.
Granted, Ewbank wasn’t exactly impartial. Philbin was a defensive star for his Jets. But Ewbank coached in both the NFL and AFL. In fact, he’s the only head coach to win world championships in both leagues. Plus, he was named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1978. So partiality yields to experience and expertise here, with Ewbank seeing enough of defensive ends to offer a fair evaluation.
“He’s got the knack of penetration, getting to the ball,” Ewbank said in “The Other League, the Fabulous Story of the American Football League.” “He never quits. He always rushes. He’s got heart and pride, a will to win. He’s always chasing the ball.”
A third-round draft pick out of the University of Buffalo, Philbin chose the AFL Jets in 1964 over the NFL Detroit Lions (who also chose him in the third round) because, as he put it, “they treated me a lot better.” NFL scouts thought he might be too small for their league and belittled the AFL. The Jets, however, flew him to New York in – what else? -- a private jet and met him at the airport.
“They showed me a lot more respect,” he told nyjets.com. “There was never any doubt in my mind that I was going to sign with the Jets.”
The Jets tried him at linebacker and offensive guard before settling on defensive end, where Philbin became a key contributor to the 1968 team that upset Baltimore in Super Bowl III. That club was known for Joe Namath, Matt Snell, Don Maynard, George Sauer Jr. and The Guarantee, but its defense was so good that it allowed fewer yards per play (4.1 to 4.4) and fewer yards per rush (3.2 to 3.7) than the 1985 Chicago Bears.
Philbin produced an unofficial 19 sacks and was named a first-team all-star that season and again in 1969.
But then the Jets faded away, not qualifying for the playoffs again until 1981. Philbin was long gone by that time, but he'd made such an impression on those who played with him, coached him and actually saw him that he was named to the Jets’ Ring of Honor in 2011 along with former teammate Larry Grantham.
Both are among 20 finalists in our “AFL Call for the Hall,” a Talk of Fame Network exercise to determine the 10 best AFL players NOT in Canton, and it’s not hard to see why. Philbin was productive. He was decorated. And he was a league champion in the greatest Super Bowl upset.
But he’s never been a finalist or semifinalist for Canton. And, frankly, it IS hard to see why.
“Gerry was a great one,” said Buddy Ryan, Philbin’s defensive-line coach at the University of Buffalo and, later, with the Jets. “Gerry should be in the Hall of Fame.”