Running the Fullback

Ken HowesCorrespondent IMarch 14, 2009

For many years, the standard offensive set—even now often referred to as the "pro set"--had two running backs.  One, the halfback, was generally called upon to do the outside running and some receiving, while the other, the fullback, did most of the inside running and some blocking. 

The roles were not exclusive—fullbacks sometimes ran outside (notably Jim Taylor of the Packers) and halfbacks sometimes ran inside (Calvin Hill of the Cowboys), many fullbacks (Tony Galbreath of the Saints) were great receivers and many halfbacks (Jim Kiick of the Dolphins) were great blockers.  But as a rule, those were the positions and their roles.

That began to change in the late '70s and early '80s, as some teams began to have big backs carry the ball more from the halfback spot and run mostly inside. Earl Campbell was the first of these, followed by Eric Dickerson, though both men did from time to time run from the fullback spot—when Campbell got to New Orleans, he was a fullback, and Dickerson was used interchangeably as a halfback or fullback. 

George Rogers was a big back running from the halfback spot. The Redskins' use of single-back sets also contributed to the downgrading of the fullback position.

In the mid-1980's, many fullbacks were still their teams' lead rushers—John Riggins, Craig James, and Roger Craig come to mind.  However, in the late 1980's, Bill Walsh changed his offensive scheme. 

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By 1988, Craig, who had been the 49ers' fullback for several years, was moved to halfback, with Tom Rathman at fullback. Rathman carried the ball a little, but his real job was to block. Walsh was the leading mind in football offensive strategy at the time, and other coaches rapidly followed his lead.

The fullback position changed into being essentially that of an extra tight end lined up in the backfield, there to provide more flexible blocking and receiving schemes than a second tight end on line would give. A few fullbacks still got the ball—Charles Way of the Giants and Mike Alstott of the Buccaneers

However, Way's role vanished once Tiki Barber became the featured back of the Giants, and Alstott's running came increasingly from the halfback position, especially after Tony Dungy was replaced by Jon Gruden as head coach; when he lined up at fullback, he was going to block or receive, not run. Oddly, Gruden had, in Oakland, been one of the few other coaches who ran his fullback—Zack Crockett was another of the fullbacks who got the ball.

Today the fullback as a runner has almost disappeared. The Patriots and Seahawks sometimes run their fullbacks; Marc Edwards and Heath Evans have seen some use in the last ten years in Foxborough, and Mack Strong did some running in Seattle.  But even these teams never run their fullback more than perhaps 50 times a year, and most teams run their fullback less than ten times a year.

John Madden has been loudly critical of using the fullback.  He launched into a tirade against the Chicago Bears when they failed to get a first down with a fullback dive, going on about how the fullback, with no blocking back in front of him, could not get the necessary yardage.  This seems to be the current conventional wisdom.

That is strange coming from the man whose featured runners, when he was a head coach, were fullbacks.  In 1969 and 1970, his top runner was fullback Hewritt Dixon, and Dixon was succeeded by fullbacks Marv Hubbard and Mark Van Eeghen, big pounders all who slammed into the line with no other back in front of them.

When the fullback carries the ball, it is quite true that he has no other blocking back in front of him, unless perhaps a tight end is put in motion and delivers a "wham" block in the middle of the line.  His blocking is whatever lineman is in front of him.  The halfback gets an additional block from the fullback when he runs from a two-back set.

The argument, though, is not as strong as it sounds. First, many teams no longer have any lead blocking back at all. The Indianapolis Colts generally do not even carry a fullback on their roster (tight end Dallas Clark's number 44 reflects a time when they did), and a great many teams use a three wide receiver set as their standard offense.  Their halfbacks run all the time without another back in front of them.

In short yardage situations, the lead blocker does gain additional value, as power becomes of the essence. The fullback, however, has his own advantages.

In the I formation generally used in short yardage situations, the halfback is usually lined up 6-8 yards behind the line. The fullback is typically 3-4 yards back from the line. That means that he gets to the line much more quickly than the halfback.

When, in a short yardage situations, the defense becomes aware that the play is a run into the line, it has to close on that run. If it does not, the runner just cuts off his block and breaks into the secondary for a big gain. So the linebackers head for the point of attack to seal the hole as quickly as possible. 

Typically there are three or four linebackers. If he is in a blocking role, the fullback will attempt to drive out or at least block off the first of them to arrive at the point of attack.  He cannot, however, block all of them, let alone a strong safety who is probably also coming on quickly.  They are likely to arrive at the point of attack almost as soon as the halfback arrives.

On the other hand, if the fullback is carrying the ball, he is getting to the point of attack before more than one linebacker can arrive. He is coming straight on, firing out of his set and hitting the hole. If he is a really powerful runner, he can drive the linebacker, who is moving sideways and avoiding the traffic, back a couple of yards.

Further, the offensive lineman (usually a guard) through whose spot the play is designed to run will usually get a momentary surge as he hits the defensive lineman while the latter is still diagnosing the play. That lasts only briefly. By the time a halfback can get to the hole, unless the offensive lineman is really driving the defensive lineman, the latter has recovered from the initial impact and is closing on the play.

On the other hand, the fullback hits the hole almost immediately. When he gets there, unless the defensive lineman has absolutely squashed the blocker, the defensive lineman is in no position to help bring the fullback down. 

A really powerful fullback can hit that line and move the pile a yard or two almost every time.  Mack Strong was able to do that.  Heath Evans' almost unheard-of 67 percent success rate (see the 2008 Pro Football Prospectus) shows that he could do it. NFL teams would be well to escape the herd mentality and regain the short-yardage capability that men like Csonka, Nance, Harris and Cunningham used to give their teams.

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