It can be argued that the contemporary NFL is the most unique professional sports league in the world today.
While the strategies utilized for offensive success in sports such as baseball and basketball are essentially limited to approaches that consist of athletes of set positions and skill sets, the rules and tradition of the NFL allow for its teams to create offensive schemes that incorporate combinations of players from different positions, specialties, and attributes that may drastically affect the style and identity of the team as a whole.
In today’s NFL, offensive prestige is becoming more and more consistent with the mold of a star quarterback, surrounded by at least three wide receivers through at least 50 percent of the game.
Under such a formation, loosely defined as a single-back formation, the once vital position known as the fullback is all but erased. In fact, many teams currently in the NFL do not even bother wasting a single one of their 53 roster spots on the presence of a fullback.
For these teams, the notion of an extra blocker in the running game is an unnecessary luxury, and a job that a backup tight end could handle if the situation dictated its utilization. However, the New York Giants certainly are not one of those teams.
Over the past few seasons, the New York Giants have relied on the timeless I-formation for the large majority of their offensive success. In fact, the G-Men may come to be the sole reason in explaining why the fullback position has not become extinct altogether.
However, prior to establishing this relationship, it would likely be prudent to first explain exactly what defines the I-formation and why the New York Giants have found such a great level of success under its practice.
In essence, the I-formation is an offensive football formation in which the team’s quarterback is directly trailed by a fullback, who is then trailed by the team’s primary running back.
In a basic I-formation, there is one tight end on the field who lines up directly next to one of the two offensive tackles, and two wide receivers who will typically line up on the opposite ends of the field.
This offensive formation can be viewed in contrast to the more popular single-back formation, in which the lone fullback is replaced in favor of a third wide receiver, thereby placing a greater emphasis on the passing aspect of the offense.
However, by opting for an extra receiver over an extra blocker, proponents of the single-back offense are seceding a valuable aspect of their running game. While the fullback usually won’t accumulate statistics relative to other skill position players, the dividends that a solid fullback can convey upon the team’s tailbacks and even the quarterback are priceless.
Now that a thorough comprehension of the I-formation has been established, we may now take a look back at my earlier claim that the Giants have single-handedly saved the position of fullback from extinction through their effective utilization of the I-formation.
So, under what grounds do I believe this claim to be true?
The evidence comes in looking at the team’s running backs. In today’s NFL, any running back who averages over four yards per carry is generally considered to be pretty good, with those who average more towards 4.5 yards per carry often appearing in their share of pro bowls.
Higher up on the running back hierarchy are the few elite running backs in the NFL who have the ability to average over five yards per carry under full playing time. Such an occurrence is generally a bit of a rarity, but the few running backs who accomplish this feat are almost always among the very best in the league.
However, the New York Giants seem to be an almost unrealistic exception to this rule. This is because all three of the major running backs for the team averaged over five yards per carry during the 2008 football season.
Brandon Jacobs for instance, is a 264 pound running back who was once thought to be little more than a goal-line specialist, averaging five yards per carry with 1,089 yards rushing.
However, it can be argued that Jacobs wasn’t even the most prolific back for the G-Men in 2008, as Derrick Ward rushed for 1,025 yards at a mind-boggling average of 5.6 yards per carry!
Even less comprehensive is that the Giant’s third string running back, Ahmad Bradshaw, rushed for an average of 5.3 yards per carry. Even the Giant’s emergency back, Danny Ware, averaged 7.5 yards per carry in the two carries that he received in 2008.
So, why were the New York Giants’ running backs so successful in 2008? I attribute their success both to the brilliant play of the offensive line as well as Madison Hedgecock’s blocking in the I-formation offense.
While Hedgecock brings little to the table in form of tangible statistical success, his proficiency in run-blocking has paved the way for absolutely any tailback to succeed in the New York Giants system.
While I do not mean to take anything away from Brandon Jacobs and the other running backs who have succeeded under this offense, I due believe that they have all been given the opportunity to maximize their abilities through the utilization of the I-formation offense.
With the help of a run blocking fullback, the Giants offense is able to take out one key defender from any given run play, as Hedgecock’s blocking usually incapacitates an unlucky linebacker on each given play. While that block may not show up in the stat sheets, the absence of that defender from the play is often just what the running back needs to break away for a big gain.
This theory definitely showed itself to be accurate in 2008, as the production of the Giants’ running game forced other NFL teams to acknowledge that a fullback can prove useful in promoting the success of the running game.
For that reason, I believe I am correct in stating, that the New York Giants have helped prevent the extinction of the modern NFL fullback through their successful utilization of the I-formation.
While the Giant’s usage of the I-formation offense has allowed their running game to flourish, this particular formation does allow for auxiliary forms of offensive firepower as well. Through this offensive system, opposing defenses are taught to bite on the run, as without extra run support it becomes increasingly difficult to stop.
As a result, many opposing defenses opt to move a safety up into the box in order to help compensate for the linebacker who will almost certainly be demolished by the fullback on that play. As a result, there is one less defender in the opposing backfield to defend the pass. Therefore, the play-action pass becomes a deadly weapon for Eli Manning and the New York Giants.
Since the opposing defense is prone towards expecting the run from a powerful I-formation system, it is quite likely that the safeties will bite on the play fake when Eli pretends to hand the ball off to the running back. As a result, each wide receiver would ideally be left in a one on one situation, which most of the league’s better receivers tend to excel in.
In fact, it is also quite possible that the corner back himself will bite on the fake, thereby freeing the receiver up all together. As a result, the Giants’ passing game actually feeds off of the running game under the I-formation.
In this respect, the I-formation offense can be said to be a perfect fit for the New York Giants, as it maximizes the all of the talent on the offensive side of the ball, rather than just one half of it.
Hey, the I-formation may not be as flashy as the wildcat or as free-flowing as the spread offense, but there’s not another formation in football that can get the job done quite like it.
And, for the New York Giants, getting the job done is just fine.
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