The Rise of the NFL Tight End and Fall of the Fullback Part II

Hayden Bird@haydenhbirdCorrespondent IJanuary 22, 2012

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 14:  Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots catches a pass against the Denver Broncos during their AFC Divisional Playoff Game at Gillette Stadium on January 14, 2012 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
Al Bello/Getty Images

As I looked at in Part I of this story about the decline of the NFL fullback and the rise of the tight end, two positions that have very similar personnel have experienced completely different fates over the last few decades.

In Part I, I looked at how this development was completely unfathomable half a century ago. Fullbacks like Jim Taylor and Jim Brown dominated football and were the best players on the field.

Furthermore, the position of tight end had only just been invented.

Within a few decades, though, their roles in football became utterly reversed. 

The Breakthrough

Like any evolution, it didn't take place overnight, but there were flashes that revealed the potential of the position.

The brightest flash was definitely Mike Ditka.

Whatever reputation Dikta garners now, his playing career should be quantified by this stat: To this day, no Chicago Bear tight end has ever caught for more yards or more touchdowns in a single season than him.

During his rookie year, Ditka legitimized his status as a first-round pick by catching for 1,076 yards and hauling in 12 touchdowns.

And he was more than numbers. Ditka put the living fear of God into defenses, showing versatility and toughness. (The only stat that does this any justice is the 19.2 yards per catch he had in his first year, 1961.)

Others also rose during the early 1960s; John Mackey, with the help of Johnny Unitas, became one of the best.

Yet the success of the tight end in this era was shackled to the success of the passing game, which was itself shackled to a more primitive rule set.

Running the ball was still the order of the day since defenses could still hit receivers and quarterbacks pretty much anyway they chose. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the rules started changing, and it took until 1984 that the NFL averaged more pass plays than run plays in a full season (a trend that has not since reversed).

Of course, by the 1980s there were two other trends that were already starting to take shape in the league. 

The Receding Fullback

The first was the steady decline of the fullback.

This is a fact that began about a decade before. Though the position lived a bountiful existence through the 1970s thanks to players like Larry Csonka and Franco Harris, the preeminent runners were no longer fullbacks.

The newer generation of talented NFL rushers became halfbacks, and a man like Earl Campbell typified the new trend. At 230 pounds, he was certainly big enough to play fullback, yet he was a halfback.

Tactically, it made sense. Using a halfback to block for a fullback makes less sense than the opposite (since the bigger fullback is generally a better blocker). So, if you lined up the more talented rusher at the halfback position, it usually equated to more success. 


The second development was the explosion of the passing game and its corresponding effect on the tight end.

The NFL became a passing league in the 1980s, but they achieved this by more than simply upping the number of pass plays. It was a time when passing strategy changed exponentially, too.

With Air Coryell in San Diego and Bill Walsh's West Coast offense in San Francisco, there were the seeds of the modern passing game, predicated around timing and precision.

Tight ends played an increased role, because now they could become a focal point of an offense designed to throw the ball 1-10 yards from the line of scrimmage instead of 20 yards downfield.

The prospect of an increased role on offense started drawing better athletes. Kellen Winslow, standing at 6'5" and 250 pounds, was one of the first "modern" tight ends. He was as big as he was fast—a matchup nightmare for linebackers who tried in vain to keep up with him.

(And even if they did that, they certainly couldn't out-jump him.)

What followed was a slow march to where we are now. Slowly, the block-only tight end receded in the depth chart. Players like Mark Bavaro, Shannon Sharpe and Tony Gonzalez (to name only a few), came to dominate the league.

SAN DIEGO, CA - 1984:  Wide receiver Kellen Winslow #80 of the San Diego Chargers catches the ball during a game at Jack Murphy Stadium during the 1984 NFL season in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)
Rick Stewart/Getty Images

More than that, their involvement in the offense changed dramatically; playbooks came to incorporate them as more than merely second-looks for a quarterback. Eventually, football came to be what it is today, with a tight end like Gonzalez sitting second for all-time receptions.


So, in the course of only a few decades, the fortune of the NFL fullback and tight end reversed dramatically. Helped by rule changes, it was made into a classic Darwinian scenario. The tight end was more apt at surviving in the evolving NFL environment of the 1980s and every decade since.

In fact, the fullback's demise has been as dramatic as the tight end's rise. On one hand, a position that once offered Jim Brown and Jim Taylor (two of the best NFL athletes of their era) gradually disintegrated.

Modern fullbacks (as I pointed out in Part I), are a peripheral position. True, their blocking is still crucial on certain downs, but their power as difference-makers in an NFL offense has vanished. Name the last time a fullback decided anything important in a game on his own.

Conversely, the tight end has gone from rule-change afterthought to the forefront of tactical evolution in offensive football.

So, all of this might not totally vindicate Darwin, but don't say I didn't pay attention in freshman bio.