Today’s NFL is pass, pass, pass. Running the ball is boring for fans, and is only used to keep defenses honest. Besides, chicks love the long ball, as they say in baseball.
I always marveled at teams that had a stable of quality running backs, and this was when teams only had a 40-man roster, and used a fullback on most every play. By the way, the fullbacks in this era were not just blockers and occasional pass receivers, they carried the ball. Many fullbacks led their teams in rushing and even the NFL. It was as they say, a different game then. I have a blog that just looks at the evolution of the fullback.
First, a little history.
Waterfield and Van Brocklin were great passers at a time when the passing game not designed for high efficiency as today, nor were the pass defense rules geared towards the receiver. There were great quarterbacks in the 1950s besides Waterfield and Van Brocklin: Otto Graham, Bobby Layne, Y. A. Title, Johnny Unitas, all Hall of Famers. But let’s not forget the great defensive players too.
The Los Angeles Rams had been a formidable passing team in the late 1940s and 1950s, with Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield at quarterback, both Hall of Famers, passing Hall of Famers Tom Fears and Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch, and All-Pro Del Shofner. The Rams also had backs Tank Younger, Dan Towler, Jon Arnett and Ollie Manson (Hall of Fame).
“Deacon” Dan Towler played with the Rams from 1950 to 1955, three times rushing for more than 800 yards. In 1953, he led the NFL in rushing.
Paul “Tank” Younger made the Pro Bowl in 1951, 1952, 1953, and 1955. While rushing, receiving, and running back punts and kickoffs, he accumulated a total of 4,275 yards with 32 touchdowns.
Jon Arnett was a first round pick in 1957. He rushed for 2,892 yards, had 1,911 receiving yards, and scored a total of 27 touchdowns as a Ram over seven years. He was a first team All-Pro and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame.
Ollie Matson played for the Rams from 1959 to 1963, after six seasons with the Chicago Cardinals. In 1959, Matson has 1,000 from the line of scrimmage. He is in both the College and NFL Hall of Fames.
Entering the 1960s, Dick Bass came onboard and would retire as the Rams leading franchise rusher. A first round pick in 1960, the All-American would finish his career rushing for 5,417 yards and scored 34 touchdowns. He also caught passes and received punts and kickoffs; he finished his career with 8,936 total yards. The first Ram to rush for 1,000 yards in a season.
All-purpose back Les Josephson was an undrafted free agent entering the league, never rushed for a 1,000 yards and battled serious injuries, but complimented Bass in the backfield as a runner, blocker and pass receiver. Josephson played 11 seasons. The 1960s was a decade of rebuilding and focusing on defense. In 1967, the Rams won their division.
Willie Ellison, gained exactly 1,000 yards in 1971, was a second round draft pick from Texas Southern in 1967. Also in 1967, veteran halfback Tommy Mason, was picked up from Minnesota Vikings. Mason gained about 5,000 yards from scrimmage during his six seasons as a Viking, and would follow George Allen to the Washington Redskins as a member of the Over the Hill Gang. Allen, like many other football head coaches, preferred versatile, veteran running backs, who were hardened, knew the system and rarely fumbled.
Larry Smith, a first round pick in 1969 from Florida. He had a short career in Los Angeles and rejoined head coach George Allen in Washington. In those days, drafting a running back in the first round was a no-brainer as offenses were built around the run.
Travis Williams, a premier kick returner, and part time running back from Green Bay in 1971. Nicknamed “The Roadrunner,” Williams one season averaged 41 yards per kickoff return and returned four for touchdowns.
The 1972 draft brought Jim Bertelsen, a bruising wishbone running back from the Texas Longhorns. The draft also landed Lawrence McCutchen, who would rush for over 1,000 yards four times for the Rams, in round three. He gained 6,186 yards with 23 touchdowns, and he caught 198 passes for 1,799 yards with 13 touchdowns.
Cullen Bryant arrived with the Rams’ second round pick in 1973. Originally a defensive back, he became a dangerous kick and punt returner before working into the Rams backfield as a bowling ball of a fullback. The Rams also picked up Tony Baker from the Eagles as an all-around back.
In 1974, the Rams drafted Heisman winner John Cappelletti from Penn State with their first round selection. During his senior year, he rushed for 1,522 yards and 17 touchdowns. As a Ram, he rushed for 2,246 yards and caught passes for 947 yards while scoring 18 touchdowns.
The 1977 draft halfback Wendall Tyler from UCLA in the third round. He would run for over 1,000 twice for the Rams and once for the 49ers.
Former All-American Anthony Davis arrived in 1978, having played in Canada, the WFL and two other NFL teams. Davis was a gamble which didn’t pay off. The Rams spent their first round pick on Elvis Peacock from Oklahoma. He would only play two seasons in the NFL because of knee injuries. Davis and Peacock were two of a long lone of very successful college running backs that underwhelmed the NFL and AFL, sometimes because of injuries, other times they simply weren’t built for the quickness, size of defenses and durability of professional football.
The 1980 draft brought fullback Mike Guman in the sixth round from Penn State. Guman played nine years for the Rams. Jewerl Thomas was drafted in the third round, he played two years for the Rams as a spot starter.
Then the Rams would draft future Hall of Famers Eric Dickerson, Marshall Faulk and Jerome Bettis. All Pro Steven Jackson, rushed for over 1,000 yards eight straight seasons.
Clearly, the NFL still values running the football, despite the changed role of the running attack. Getting those tough yards for a first down or carrying it across the goal line are still important. Breaking a runner into the open field is exciting to watch and changes a game’s momentum, as well as helping run the clock and rest a defense. It’s not three yards and a cloud of dust anymore. Then again, there aren’t dirt fields anymore, either.