Even though he's not playing much, McNeil is a valuable Jet

August 25, 1991|By George Usher | George Usher,Newsday

It would appear the end is near for Freeman McNeil, the New York Jets' all-time leading rusher. Going into his 11th season, he has carried the ball only three times in three consecutive exhibition losses.

There are other indications his career could be near an end. He is 32, which is considered old for a running back in the NFL. His salary is $900,000, which is considered high for a non-starter, and he is on a team that is committed to youth.

Caution: Don't be misled by appearances.

McNeil, the Jets' No. 1 pick in 1981 out of UCLA, is secure in his role as backup to last year's top draft choice, Penn State's Blair Thomas. Coach Bruce Coslet believes there still is a need for McNeil's leadership, experience and talents.

"He'll be better this year," Coslet said. "Because he knows what he's doing. He hadn't been exposed to cut-back running. He was a sweep-and-trap guy. He'll be better. He'll hold up. He's fine. He's faster than last year. He's faster than any time in his career."

McNeil, soft-spoken and introspective, thought for a moment about the 4.64 40-yard time he clocked in May's minicamp. He admitted it might have been a little faster than the time he produced just out of UCLA 11 seasons ago.

"I don't know," he said. "I really don't pay attention to that stuff. I understand the plays better from last year. They're much easier for me to execute because I understand them."

McNeil has only one season as a starter in which he started in all 16 games. That was in 1988, his first injury-free season, and he produced 944 yards on 219 carries for a 4.3 average, and six touchdowns. Playing in 26 games the past two seasons, he started 11, losing the No. 1 spot at running back to Johnny Hector in 1989 and to Thomas last season.

Still, he finished third on the team in rushing last season with 458 yards and six touchdowns on 99 carries, and sixth in receiving with 230 yards on 16 catches. His value as a situation back was apparent, and he appears more than willing to fill that role again this season.

"I'm in a great situation," he said. "I've got me a great opportunity to play, and when I come in, there's that extra added incentive to make something happen."

One has to wonder if his salary is the incentive that keeps him going. "There has to be more to it than that," he said. "Money is motivational, but it's only part of it. It takes a lot for a man to know he's going to be smashing his body week in, week out for half a year.

"I don't think I could play if I didn't enjoy it. There's something about playing. I don't know.. . The enjoyment, the relationships involved just keep you coming back. The contract is a gimme, but the guys who play a long time, there is something there that keeps them going. There has to be more to it than just the money."

While McNeil expected more action in last night's preseason finale against the Washington Redskins, he said the Jets' 0-3 preseason record may be giving a false reading of the team's potential.

"There's a lot of talent around here," he said. "It's being molded, ,, and we'll straighten out. The enthusiasm of the young players is moving. It's great. The attitude is winning. We'll be a better team this year [after a 6-10 season]. We wanted to win every preseason game, but we were focusing on talent, looking at people. There is no evidence [to support me], but I know that we'll be a different team on opening day."

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