One of the great things about having a fan-based Jets Hall of Fame is being able to recognize players that may not have been all-time NFL greats but were players who, as Jets fans, we came to appreciate because of their consistent stellar play year in and year out. They might not have captured the notice of football fans across the country, but they certainly captured the hearts of Jets Nation thanks to their efforts on Sunday afternoons.
One such player who consistently dazzled Jets fans was running back Freeman McNeil.
For a lot of current Jets fans, when they see #24 in green-and-white running down the field, they see all-world cornerback Darrelle Revis. For us older fans, however, #24 conjours up memories of McNeil, another seemingly all-world player — when he was healthy enough to stay on the field.
A first-round draft pick in 1981 — and third overall — out of UCLA (where he was an All-American), the dynamic McNeil was one of those rare players who spent his entire 12-year NFL career (a lifetime for an NFL running back) on a single team, suiting up for the Jets from ’81 to ’92. During that span, he played in 144 games, accumulating 8,074 rushing yards, only second to Curtis Martin in team history. He also had 38 rushing TDs during that span, making him 4th in team history — although many scoring opportunities were vultured by backfield mate Johnny Hector.
In an era when the celebrated Sack Exchange grabbed headlines, McNeil was a versatile and exciting offensive player, and excelled coming out of the backfield as a receiver. Over the course of his career, he had 295 receptions for 2,961 yards and 12 TDs, making for an average of 10 yards a reception, which is impressive for a running back.
More impressive, however, was his average per rushing attempt — a key measuring stick when evaluating a running back. For his career, Freeman McNeil averaged 4.5 yards a carry, a better mark than such contemporaries as Hall-of-Famers Tony Dorsett, Earl Campbell and Walter Payton. McNeil is also rare that he averaged better than 4 yards a carry for every season of his stellar career.
As someone who loved watching McNeil run week in and week out, I can tell you why that average was so high — it’s the same thing that makes McNeil such a beloved figure in Jets history. In addition to being an exciting and great cutback runner, at the end of every carry, McNeil had a wonderful habit of lunging, diving or simply wriggling forward to gain just another few more feet. Maybe it didn’t make a difference on each individual play, but those additional inches and that extra effort added up over time, and certainly helped fuel the appreciation that Jets fans have for McNeil.
Unfortunately, McNeil’s dramatic style of running also caused McNeil to miss a number of games (as well as fumble a little more than average — but hey, no one’s perfect!). During the dozen years of his career, McNeil only played in every game three times, and two of those were later on when he wasn’t nearly as effective. One of those seasons where he did play in every game, however, was particularly sweet.
In that infamous strike-shortened 1982 NFL season, McNeil became the first Jets running back to lead the NFL in rushing, going for 786 yards in 9 games and averaging 5.2 yards a carry while leading the Jets to the playoffs. In the first round, McNeil singlehandedly destroyed the Bengals, rushing for 202 yards and a TD as well as passing for a TD in a 44-17 victory. In the next game, he laid 101 yards on the Raiders to lead the team to the AFC Championship Game in Miami. Despite how that game turned out, it capped a sensational campaign for McNeil, who was voted to his first Pro Bowl and was named All Pro.
McNeil would go on to earn two more Pro Bowl berths: one in 1984, where he ran for 1,070 yards with 5 TDs in just 12 games, and the next the following season, where he amassed 1,331 yards in only 14 games, as well as 427 yards receiving. While he had many memorable games in other seasons — including an 140-yard game versus Seattle in 1983, and 184-yard and 154-yard efforts against the Chiefs in 1987 & ’88 — McNeil wasn’t consistently on the field enough to amass statistics that would rank him among the game’s elite.
He is, however, among the greatest running backs to ever don the green-and-white. From his fine game-day performances and inspired off-the-field charitable contributions, Freeman McNeil has made an indelible mark on New York, and has earned himself a spot in the pantheon of New York sports greats.
Freeman, welcome to the TJB Hall of Fame and thanks for all the great memories.