Are Fullbacks a Dying Breed in Today's NFL?

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterAugust 29, 2013

San Diego's Le'Ron McClain remembers one of his first severe concussions.

He was with the Kansas City Chiefs. It was 2011. There was a collision, the details of which he still cannot exactly remember. The symptoms began with a dull pain in his neck, then a tingling sensation that started in his feet, then a constellation in his head.

The stars eventually disappeared, but the tingling stayed.

McClain stayed on the ground for a moment, then slowly made his way to the bench. He put his helmet close by, thinking he would shake it off and return to the game. This is the fighter mentality. This is what players like him have done for a generation.

Once his head cleared, McClain reached for his helmet. It had disappeared.

The trainers had confiscated it.

"I was pissed," McClain remembered. "I told them I was fine, but they said, 'If you were fine, you wouldn't be feeling tingling in your feet.' Looking back, I'm glad they protected me.

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"This is what happens when you play this position. Almost every play there's a bad collision. Every play I bang."

Yes, this is the life of a fullback. But it won't be for long.

There are many other positions in football where the collisions and violence are extreme, but fullback might be the most brutal of them all, because so many of their blocks are at or near full speed. When offensive linemen use their hands to pass block, fullbacks are using their heads. When middle linebackers drop into pass coverage, the fullback is still head-knocking.

All of these reasons (plus a few more) are why the fullback position, in its truest form, is just about dead.

Not-so-distant-future dad: "Let me tell you about a time when football was played with fullbacks."

Son: "What's a fullback?"

Dad: "He blocked and was bloodied and tough and a punisher."

Son: "What's blocking?"

Fullbacks are about to jump the Sharknado. In just a few years, we may be talking about the position with the kind of smirking reminiscence we do eight-track cassettes and jorts.

Along the way, players like McClain dutifully play on. While the quarterbacks and wide receivers get the commercials and nine-figure contracts, maybe the bravest men on the field play in relative obscurity, fighting through harsh violence and a sport that sometimes doesn't respect them.

"We're not the glamorous guys," McClain said, "but we love football as much as any other player that plays a different position."

McClain, one of the best blockers of the past half-decade, was released by the Ravens in 2011 and says part of the reason was that he wanted a larger role. He didn't want to be just a head-banger; he didn't want to be just a fullback.

"In Baltimore, I got a little bit of a big head," he said. "The entire thing humbled me. It was a blessing in disguise. Now I feel like I have another chance to prove myself."

As offenses have become far more pass-oriented and rules have been introduced to prevent the extreme violence that was once a staple of the position, fullbacks are being used far less. How much less is hard to quantify, but one scout estimated that fullbacks were probably involved in 50 to 60 percent of plays in the 1980s, and that number is now down to five to 10 percent and dropping rapidly.

Many colleges, due to the proliferation of the spread offense, no longer use true fullbacks, so the feeder system to the NFL has evaporated. For some players, the position simply isn't glamorous enough.

"Nobody ever grows up wanting to be a fullback,” Baltimore's Vonta Leach told Scott Cacciola of The New York Times. “Who really wants to block somebody every down?”

"The innovation of NFL offenses, and largely thanks to the college game, has been focused on putting more speed on the field," said Matt Miller, Bleacher Report's NFL Draft Lead Writer. "NFL coaches would rather take a tight end who can run a 4.5 40 and teach him to block, because then he's a three-tool player. The classic fullback can do one thing: block."

There have also been whispers of NFL teams not wanting the headache (no pun intended) of using a player who has perhaps the highest probability of being repeatedly concussed.

With so much attention paid to concussions and thousands of former players filing lawsuits against the league over them, it's understandable if some teams would rather avoid what they see as a high risk for low reward. I've heard this theory repeatedly from players and team officials as the biggest reason the position has fallen out of favor so fast.

Still, there are a handful of places where the fullback position is prospering, like Baltimore, San Francisco and Minnesota. The Vikings use the lead draw with a fullback, which is extremely old school, and Adrian Peterson has thrived off of it—though that's as much because Peterson is so damn good and the quarterback there has been so damn bad.

There's even been talk of a fullback resurgence, but that's just plain ridiculous. They're just morphing into hybrids like Greg Jones, who's now in Houston. The true incarnation of the fullback is all but gone. "Now and in the future," McClain said, "you can't just be a battering ram.

"I've adapted my game over the last few years where I try to be a better pass catcher and runner for when I get the chance to carry the ball," McClain said. "The biggest adjustment I've made is learning to block all over the field, not just as a lead blocker."

McClain has been part of some of the more violent collisions in recent years. He remembers several in particular. The hardest hit he delivered was the cratering of Cleveland's T.J. Ward. The hardest hit he remembers taking was in 2008 when he was blasted by Pittsburgh's James Harrison.

But despite those rough hits and recent trends, McClain isn't changing his mentality.

"You have to think about the violence to your body and mind, but you can't let it stop you," he said. "You get hit or you deliver a hit. I'm a fullback. I'd rather deliver the hit."

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