Tuesday, August 12, 2008


If you’ve spent a good deal of your life watching, playing and learning about sports, then you’ve seen a good bit of evolution within the games. There are few sports that have undergone such transformations as American football. Many of you who come across Scribe have been fortunate enough to have witnessed several generations of greats who redefined certain positions; mobile quarterbacks, tight ends with wide receiver-like hands, hybrid linebackers/defensive ends, to name a few. Yet, before our very eyes, we’ve watched one position wither away in prominence.

Is there a more underrated, underappreciated or unheralded position in any sport than the fullback?

Until the 1990s, the fullback was a combination of blocker, rusher and receiver. His priority had always been to pick up defenders that weaved by offensive linemen. Yet, he was the quarterback’s safety valve; whether designed or forced by a blitzing defense, he would be called upon to run the ball on occasion or make a few catches to sneak a few yards or prevent a sack. For much of the first sixty years of the NFL, the fullback was the most versatile player on every team. Marion Motley, Ernie Nevers, Larry Csonka, Bronko Nagurski and Jim Taylor are names of FBs that set the tone of their team’s offenses by lead blocking and running hard against defenses.

Though offenses grew in complexity as time progressed, there were still sprinkles of the fullback’s full array being displayed as Tom Rathman and Daryl Johnston were vital cogs for the Team of the 80s (San Francisco) and 90s (Dallas). Both were asked to be blockers, but when their quarterbacks needed to be bailed out or when their running backs tired a bit, both players knew that their numbers would be called upon.

The nineties, in particular, brought about the simplest playbook of a position player; open up holes for your running backs to hit and be the last line of defense for your quarterback on passing plays. Despite the lack of ball touches, the fullback might be the second (if not the) hardest hitter on a team’s roster. Lorenzo Neal and Tony Richardson are the absolute best in the game; evidenced by eight Pro Bowls and seven All-Pro selections between them. Mike Alstott ran more than others in the position, but he made Warrick Dunn’s job much easier for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the latter part of the decade. Fred Beasley (San Francisco, Miami), Sam Gash (Baltimore, Buffalo) and Jim Finn (Indianapolis, New York Giants) were top-flight blockers for a few seasons. Jeremi Johnson (Cincinnati) and Madison Hedgecock (pictured above, replaced Finn on the Giants) were crucial for their teams in 2007.

So what happened to the position for it to become an afterthought or to be completely overlooked?

There are a couple of logical reasons for this, with the most obvious being that teams have been quick to use extras – an extra wide receiver, an extra running back or extra tight end – to stretch defenses and give their signal callers more options on the field.

In turn, expanding offenses have led to a general devaluing of the fullback, especially in the salary cap era of the NFL. Where pass rushing specialists, kick returners, change-of-pace backup running backs and veteran nickel defensive backs will pick up a few extra grand per year, the fullback might ether be the lowest paid non-kicker or not on a roster at all. A handful of teams actually list a fullback on their roster, though a couple more may employ them without the official designation.

The near extinction is rarely mentioned, even within long time members of the football media. Does this mean that they are not as important in the locker room as, say, a third-down pass rusher who takes ten or twelve snaps a game? Does this mean that the position will never get its proper due as set-up relievers in baseball or backup guards with bounds of energy in basketball? That’s hard to answer. If your favorite team hasn’t employed an FB in sometime, but has success, then its importance is a moot point.

Yet, there’s a reason why the Jets, before trading for Brett Favre, made the NFL take notice when they beefed up the offense not only with linemen Alan Faneca and Damien Woody, but adding Richardson to make holes for running back Thomas Jones.

There’s a reason why today, Baltimore signed Neal in the offseason after San Diego jettisoned him; to give Willis McGahee and rookie Ray Rice some room to move.

As much as tight end Kevin Boss was lauded for his willingness to block en route to the Super Bowl, the Giants are even more grateful to have found Hedgecock after Finn was placed on injured reserve last offseason.

The fullback may never get the attention that other players receive. Even the once-anonymous offensive linemen have some notoriety these days; mostly when they screw up or are drafted number one overall (hello, Jake Long). Yet, there is someone who will be happy to buy him Porterhouse steaks and airfare to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl.

The guy who ran for well over 1,000 yards behind him.

Say What?!?!: Here’s a proposition: since there has yet to be a blocking fullback to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, how about one of these years, all of the best are inducted at once. Neal, Richardson, Rathman, Johnston; all four have accolades that high-round busts and oft-injured high salaried players would kill for. Though the latter two have five Super Bowls between them, all four have been the lead blockers for eleven different 1,000-yard rushers, including All-Pros and Hall of Famers.

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