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Football 101: Is The Fullback Back, Or Will The Decline Continue?

The fullback could be a vanishing position. Or is it? This is a rewrite and update of a previous post on the same subject.

The Seahawks Fullback
The Seahawks Fullback
Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY

A while back, Forbes ran an article (link here) that talked about the future of the NFL fullback. The article was written at the beginning of the 2013 season and it presents some interesting data to consider.

At the time the article was written, there were only 22 fullbacks listed on the depth charts of the 32 teams in the NFL. If my math is correct, that means about one third of the teams at that time did not value the fullback position. The article goes on to say that only the nose tackle position had less and that's because only 3-4 defenses have one.

According to the article, the fullback is also one of the lowest paid positions as well, and it has one of the shortest career averages as far as longevity goes at under 4 years, 3.91 seasons to be exact. The only positions with a lower salary are the long snappers and punters.

Keep in mind that it is extremely important to be able to run the ball to hold a lead, and Emmitt Smith points out that teams need to start the game by running the ball to get the defense taking the punishment of the forward momentum, instead of the offensive line taking the blows when they are moving backwards to set up the pass-blocking schemes.

The offensive line loves to pancake and dominate the defensive line and in the fourth quarter when the game is close, the first-team defensive guys will be worn out from the running game blows. Just take the Broncos in last year's Super Bowl as a great example. It wasn't the best quarterback that won, it was the team that controlled both lines of scrimmage, and for the offense, it starts with run blocking.

Let me shed some light on why. The normal role for a fullback was to be a big, powerful running back that could get the short yardage when needed , and could block for the smaller, quicker halfback for a change of pace. Famous fullbacks like Jim Brown were mainly used in the "Big back that can run" mold and seldom did any blocking for the halfback, although Jim Brown did block for his eventual replacement, Leroy Kelly, who was a halfback.

When Bill Walsh taught his version of the passing attack, which was later called the "West Coast" offense, it had a central theme. That theme was that all of the "skill" positions should be used in the passing attack. Short passes would take the place of runs and when the defense least expected it they would run the ball. This meant that Walsh made sure that all five players that were available to the QB could catch the ball very well.

Now, fast forward to right after Walsh left the game. Teams were still using the fullback in the traditional "lead blocker" function, and for a while the Cowboys with "Moose" were able to open big holes. And just when a LB would "show up" in the hole, there was "Moose" to take him out of the play - and off went Emmitt on long runs.

However, after a few years of that, teams decided to just start sending more than one guy to whereever Moose went, because wherever he went, Emmitt would soon be right there too and teams began to be ready for him.

In previous years, teams like the Bears decided that they would take the concept of a "lead blocker" to the extreme, and just put another offensive or even a defensive lineman in the back field and let him either lead the back through the hole or sometimes even carry the ball. Guys like William "The Refrigerator" Perry. Why put a "tweener" in the backfield to block? If that was all he was doing, then put in a guy that has been doing that in the trenches for all of his career.

Here is the problem though. The West Coast idea of having the defense account for five guys in the passing lanes, was the better idea, especially in this day and age of the passing game being so prominent with so many spread formations.

So, why put a guy in the backfield who isn't really another skill player, but rather a small version of another offensive lineman? Again, either put another lineman back there or put someone that can both block and do a really good job of catching the ball.

The Colts, along with the offensive coordinator or the offensive line coach, Howard Mudd, one or all of them, decided that with the "Zone Blocking Scheme", the one-cut back didn't really need nor want a slow fullback in front of him, so the Colts stopped carrying a fullback on their team.

Now, on to the success of the New England Patriots and their use of the two-tight end offense. It is more successful, in my opinion, because they also recognized that having a slow guy in the backfield that was not a real threat in the passing game was counterproductive, so they went to the 12 package and now the rest of the league is slowly coming around.

I have complained for many years of how upset I was about several things that I thought were ridiculous, and one of those was throwing to a slow fullback that seemed to always be running east/west and getting tackled as soon as he caught the ball for a 4-5 yard loss.

So, there you have it. Do you think this trend will continue, or do you think teams will recognize that the teams with the better running games are the successful teams and so this trend may reverse. Keep in mind, it is my opinion that the success of the Seahawks and others is mainly due to the outstanding trench play, and especially with their dominating offensive line play.

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