Is the NFL Fullback an Endangered Species?

John Doublin@CoachJayDeeSenior Writer IMarch 17, 2010

Where have all the fullbacks gone?

The days of 250 pounds, shoulders square, and a bad attitude running down hill are just about over.

One of my fondest memories as a child was watching Mark Van Eeghen (pictured) receive a hand off from Jim Plunkett and turn a simple dive play into a hard fought, eight yard touchdown. I fear that my son will never get to see that.

There was a time when all the great runners were fullbacks. Larry Csonka, Franco Harris, John Riggins and the Raiders' Mark Van Eeghen were all listed on their team roster as fullbacks. They all led their respective teams in attempts and yards multiple times while they played.

History lesson:

1977 saw Raider fan favorite Mark Van Eeghen get called upon for 324 carries and 15 receptions totalling 1,378 yards and seven touchdowns.

In 1983, Hall of Famer John Riggins toted the rock 375 times and added five receptions totalling 1,476 yards from scrimmage and tallied 24 touchdowns for the Washington Redskins. 

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That same year, Hall of Fame inductee Franco Harris touched the ball 313 times for 1,285 yards and seven touchdowns for the Steelers.

Larry Csonka had 213 attempts and five receptions for a total of 1,165 yards and six touchdowns in 1972.

Each of these players led their team in carries and were the focal point of their team's rushing attack. These were not the only times these men led the offense for their teams either. It happened repeatedly over the course of their careers.

The league was much different then. Teams were still subscribing to the "old school" theory of "run the ball to win, pass when you have to." The league average was approximately 60 percent rush versus 40 percent pass.

The 1981 San Diego Chargers are reputed to be the first team in the "modern era"to pass more than they ran.  Dan Fouts attempted 609 passes while their primary runner, Chuck Muncie, received only 251 carries. However, this was still an anomaly, not the norm.

You have to go to the 1987-1988 San Francisco 49ers to find the first confirmed case of a team putting together back-to-back seasons with more passing attempts than rushing attempts in the "modern era."

Back to the topic at hand.

Other than the Eagles' Leonard Weaver and Packer John Kuhn, can you name a fullback that is used as a legitimate offensive threat and not just a lead blocker today? Most people can't. There just aren't very many anymore. Why is that?

One reason for this could be the advent and proliferation of the "West Coast offense." Since Bill Walsh won three Super Bowls with his version of the Paul Brown-inspired pass-first mentality, nearly every team in the league uses some version of it.  Those that don't, still use at least some aspect of it as part of their offense.

It's not widely known that Brown and Walsh created the West Coast offense, not to intentionally replace the running game, but to hide the weak arm of quarterback Virgil Carter and the poor rushing game they had in Cincinnati.

I guess necessity really is the mother of invention!

Another possible scenario could be the return of the "Single-Wing" or "Spread" offense by colleges from around the nation. With the exception of only a few, most college teams are not running any "pro-style" offenses anymore.

It's almost always shotgun formation, three, four, and even five wide receivers. The I-formation is almost obsolete in college these days.

You only seem to hear this spoken about when referring to the lack of developed quarterbacks coming into the league, but not when referring to the fact that every year there are only two or three legitimate full backs.

This year there are only about five legitimate fullbacks in the draft. Only one, Stanley Havili, played in a traditional, "pro-style" offense at USC.

The emergence of the singleback offense is yet another contributor in the demise of the fullback position. So many teams these days come out of the huddle with three wide receivers, a tight end, and a halfback. The fullback is left on the side line to only be used in pass blocking or short yardage situations.

Some time in the mid to late 1980s, the fullback began to get phased out of offenses in the NFL. It is a truly rare site to see a fullback get more than two or three carries in a game today. It is even more of a rarity for them to get a carry on first down. This traditional running down seems to be reserved for the deep ball or wide receiver screen.

Don't misunderstand me, there have been a lot of good, even great, fullbacks in the league in recent years. Howard Griffith, Lorenzo Neal, and Dan Kreider each played key rolls in their team's success, but not as weapons, as lead blockers. They opened holes for other guys to carry the ball and get the yards and the glory.

In 1999 Mike Alstott of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers carried the ball 242 times for 949 yards and 7 touchdowns. Warrick Dunn, the Bucs halfback in '99, only got 195 carries. This is the last instance I found when a fullback got more touches than the starting halfback.

In 2003 a fullback named Larry Centers retired. Centers was a great player and made his name by being one of the best receiving fullbacks in the history of the league. He finished his career with 827 catches for 6,797 yards and 28 touchdowns coupled with only 615 rushing attempts for 2,188 yards and 14 touchdowns.

It seems that Centers and Alstott were anomalies and are the last of the genuine offensive threats from the fullback position. Unless the aforementioned Weaver or Kuhn start getting more opportunities, this statement will prove to be true.

Is this a good thing for football? That is a question that could be debated for years to come.

In my personal opinion, this trend has irrevocably changed the sport. It has caused a shift in the most important characteristic of a team. Toughness has given weigh way to finesse. You combine that with the over-protection of the quarterbacks and it no longer resembles the sport I fell in love with in 1973.

So I ask you, has the shift in the game away from a power running game, to a finesse passing game been good or bad for the game we love?