With runners, it's a matter of style. Each one has his own way of doing things, arid if the coach likes what he sees he doesn't do any editing. No heavy pencil. "A great runner is like a Picasso," Sid Gillman, the old San Diego coach, once said. "No one's going to tell him, 'This is the way we do things around here.' "
The best of them put their own brushstrokes on the canvas, and when they're finished there's a whole wall full of beauty. Statistics don't tell the story. A sunset can't be measured in terms of light units. Each runner leaves his own memories: Larry Csonka, a wrecker's ball knocking down a wall; Gale Sayers, a wisp of smoke; O.J. Simpson, a surgeon's probe, the glide and then the quick incision; Walter Payton, controlled fury, a war against tacklers; Jimmy Brown, power and grace, a lion on the hunt.
In New York there's another canvas taking shape. The artist is a 23-year-old Jet halfback named Freeman McNeil, and his brushwork has just begun. His credentials are modest so far. He is in just his second season, and his first was marred by injury. But all the signs are there.
"Bob Ledbetter and I were breaking down film," Jet Offensive Line Coach Bob Fry said last week, "and we kept running plays back, just to watch McNeil."
"Freeman McNeil," says Ledbetter, the running backs coach, "hasn't even scratched the surface yet."
Through the game of Dec. 12 McNeil was leading the league with 532 yards rushing. On Sunday against Tampa Bay he carried 14 times for 53 yards, caught three passes for 49 more and scored two touchdowns as the Jets beat the Buccaneers 32-17.
McNeil's running is one reason, but not the only reason, why the Jets have now won five straight games after an opening-day loss to Miami. They faced the Bucs with the No. 1-rated offense in the NFL, the No. 1 defense and the No. 1 running attack. And the passing attack is right up there. When the Lions drew their linebackers in to cut off McNeil recently, Quarterback Richard Todd lit up the board with 294 yards passing in the first half, and he could have gone for 500 if the game had been close. The Jets won 28-13. Against Tampa Bay, New York showed its defensive muscle, holding the Bucs to 47 yards rushing. McNeil gave the Jets almost all the points they needed with four-and five-yard scoring runs within 53 seconds of each other in the first quarter.
The Jets have had great runners in the past—Matt Snell, Emerson Boozer, John Riggins—but they've never had one who won a rushing title. Now they've got a definite threat. Earlier this year McNeil gave them three 100-yard games in a row for the first time in their history, and now everyone is playing that old game, "Who does he remind you of?"
"If you were to ask what's the state religion in the NFL," Giants General Manager George Young once said, "the answer would have to be Hindu. Everyone believes in reincarnation. They're always saying, 'This guy's another Sayers' or 'another O.J.' "
With McNeil the answer isn't easy.