Fullbacks: No Longer Needed

This is a blog about football and one aspect in particular, the gradual extinction of the old-fashioned fullback. Why is this important or worthy of a blog? The fullback has been sacrificed for expanding the passing game. The passing game in football is similar to home-runs in baseball or the three-point shot in basketball. It’s about excitement from big plays; and ESPN highlights.

So, my point is really about how sports change. As players become, bigger and faster, the playing field seems smaller. Running the football for a few yards is not very exciting. Why put two players in the backfield when one will do. Put another fast receiver on the field and spread out the defense.

Look at any football roster and you will not see many, if any, players listed as a fullback. The position barely exists in today’s football.

Today’s game is about passing, chunks of yards, move the chains, the bomb. Interestingly, that was said in the mid-1960s as the American Football League sought to attract football fans with high flying passing, instead of three yards and a cloud of dust, which the rival National Football League was known.

Keep in mind, football at any level, is so different today. Health, nutrition, training, sports medicine, equipment, coaching,, mechanics, facilities, rules – totally different. It was a running game then. Even in professional football, quarterbacks sought to complete at least 50 percent of their passes. Today, that percentage would doom a quarterback. The expectation is much higher.

The T formation. Both receivers line up next the the tackle on either side. The fullback is directly behind the quarterback and there are two halfbacks, one on either side of the fullback.

In the early days of football, passing was an afterthought, the techniques and expertise was not there. It was run, run, run. Quarterbacks were runners more than passers, and the backfield had halfbacks, wingbacks and fullbacks. Halfbacks and wingbacks were fleet, speedy and illusive. Fullbacks were strong and powerful. They ran between the tackles, got tough yardage and blocked.

Fullback Jim Taylor (31) blocks for halfback Paul Hornung (5).
The single wing formation. One end is split from the tackle. On the other side is an end lining up next to the tackle. A wingback is on the tackle’s right shoulder, like a flanker or slot receiver. The fullback is directly behind the quarterback, with the tailback or halfback to the weak side.
The Wishbone formation. The quarterback (1) can hand it off the the fullback (4) or toss it to either halfback (2, 3), or keep the ball and follow his backs who block for his run.

Fullbacks and halfbacks tended to split carrying the ball, if you look back to football statistics, offenses were designed to feature both backs. However, if you had a Gale Sayers or Jim Brown, that elite back was going to get most of the carries. Fullbacks were generally bigger and stronger than halfbacks, though not as fast or agile. Jim Brown and Cookie Gilchrist were obvious exceptions. Hall of Fame fullbacks include Joe Perry, John Henry Johnson, Bronco Nagurski, Marion Motley, Larry Csonka, Franco Harris, Earl Campbell, John Riggins, Jim Taylor and Ernie Nevers. My point is that fullbacks used to be major offensive weapons as ball carriers, but that has changed.

The classic I formation. Two split ends and one tight end. The fullback is directly behind the quarterback, and the halfback or tailback behind the fullback. The fullback can take the handoff and go into the line, or block for the halfback or quarterback. The halfback can take the pitch and go to the outside or out for a pass.

In the 1980s, the NFL started going with a “featured” back, meaning one running back who took all or most rushing plays. This back was usually alone in the backfield, with an additional wide receiver or tight end. Joe Gibbs, Washington head coach started the trend of an H-Back, a hybrid fullback/tight end, who lined up in the backfield as a lead blocker or on the wing to protect the edge or drift out as a receiver. At the same time, the NFL, and later the NCAA, changed rules to increase the passing game.

#88 is the H-Back

You might have heard of the “run and shoot” offense that used three wide receivers. It was really about generating big plays by getting player in space, spreading the field with speedy players. Today’s offense routinely uses three or four receivers spread out, including maybe the tight end, or even the lone running back.

How often do fullbacks see the field? Not every team has a fullback on the roster. A fullback in today’s game is a blocker, occasional pass receiver and special teams player. These are specialists in a game of specialists. In the last 20 years, there are several extraordinary fullbacks, who did theirs jobs better than anyone. Larry Centers played 14 years, rushing for more than 2,100 yards, but catching 827 passes, a huge amount for a back. Lorenzo Neal played 16 years, rushing for only 800 yards, but leading the way for 1,000 yard runners his entire career. He was an All-Pro twice and a member of the NFL’s 2000s Decade Team.

The fullback has gone the way of the family station wagon, just a part of the Boomer memory.

3 thoughts on “Fullbacks: No Longer Needed

    1. American football was about running. The football was more of a round shape, which was not ideal for passing. There are similarities between the games. Now it is about passing. Jim Brown averaged five yards a carry for his career and he rarely fumbled. He was fast too.

      Liked by 1 person

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