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By McNeil's rookie year they were still looking for an identity. They brought in Joe Walton, the former Redskin and Giant tight end, to run the offense, and they brought in McNeil to give it some legs. He started slowly, but after the fifth game, against Miami, he ranked seventh in the league in rushing, and his 5.5-yard average was better than that of anyone ahead of him. Against Miami, though, he severely sprained his right foot. That kept him out of the next five games and limited his effectiveness when he came back. He still finished the season as the No. 1 Jet runner, with 623 yards, but the year was a downer for him.
"We'd talk a lot," Ledbetter says. "He felt bad. He was depressed. Once after a game where he'd done pretty well and the writers had interviewed him, he came over to me and said, 'What were they interviewing me for? I can't even bust a grape.' "
"I played at 227," McNeil says. "I thought you had to bulk up for pro football, I thought that's what it was all about, power and endurance. It limited my effectiveness. The system was tough to pick up, the refinements, the little things. The defense would play games—you'd check inside and see if anything was coming; if not then you'd check outside, but the defensive men might be exchanging, the inside man going outside and vice versa. I felt like I was 10 years old again. I felt I was in with a bunch of people who were a lot older than me, who knew the game. I felt the vibes of not being as good as the rest of them. It was like going to a place and they give you the directions but not the exact address. They tell you it's on this street, and they draw a little square, but the rest of it you have to find by yourself."
The Jets did some tinkering in the off-season. They put in more I-formation plays for McNeil. This was the third time a team had seen his talent for reading out of the I—hanging back, picking his hole and making the quick, decisive move. Banning High, UCLA, now the Jets.
"I'm not only an I formation tailback, I'm an I formation person," McNeil says. "It gives you an advantage. You can spread things out and then cut back, you can see the defensive reactions and figure out just how many yards you can squeeze out of a play. With splitbacks, on quick openers, it's make it and go, hit it quickly. He who hesitates is lost. But without that sense of direction it's not even a play. I'm not a splitback, quick-opener type of person. I like to feel my way around, look for the options, choose my route."
The Jets did some talking to McNeil in the off-season. Michaels told him he wanted him in at 215. He said this was his year to produce, to break it big, to justify the high pick. "When you play in our part of the country you're lost if you can't run the ball," Walton said. "Teams like San Diego and San Francisco can throw more, but when you play in places like Shea and Buffalo and New England it's tough. You'd better be able to run."
"They made it very clear what was expected of me," McNeil says. "Even Leon Hess, the owner, came up to me in the locker room after one game before the strike, New England I think, and said, 'This year you're going to have to carry the Jets.' "
McNeil has broken some long gainers out of a play called the overlead draw, in which he crosses behind the quarterback to get a deep hand-off. "It's perfect for him," Fry says. "It gives him a longer look." The trap on the right side, with Rasmussen's replacement at left guard, a balding powerhouse named Stan Waldemore, doing the trapping, has gotten big yardage for McNeil. And the old standby, 19 straight, a fullback read-and-delay that Weeb Ewbank brought to the Jets from Baltimore in 1963, has been redesigned so the halfback now carries the ball.
"Paul Brown ran that play with Marion Motley and Jimmy Brown," Michaels says. "Alan Ameche ran it for Weeb in Baltimore, and Snell and Riggins ran it for him here. Now it's handed down to Freeman."
It's a raw Thursday afternoon. The Jets have just come in from practice and they're doing the only sensible thing to get warm—yelling.