The decline of the NFL fullback
Posted Mar. 01 at 12:15 PM
With the final stats from 2011 in front of me, I notice that only two fullbacks ran for over 100 yards. Not in a game, in the entire season. It’s a position that’s dying out.
You’ve got Mike Tolbert of the Chargers, and you’ve got Marcel Reece of the Raiders. Tolbert blocked for Ryan Mathews and also saw significant carries in one-back sets; he was San Diego’s primary goal-line option. With Reece, he busted a 26-yard run in Week 16 against Detroit, helping him sneak over 100 yards (he finished with 112).
But that’s it. Most of the other fullbacks around the league (and not every team even carries one anymore) were doing little more than blocking. Vonta Leach, Henry Hynoski, LeRon McClain. These guys are almost like glorified offensive linemen nowadays.
It’s simply a position that is dying out. The rules of the game keep changing, and coaches have figured out that it’s more challenging for defenses to defend against an extra wide receiver or tight end.
If you look back at the ‘70s and ‘80s, you see a lot more fullbacks getting their hands on the ball as a change-up pitch. Rocky Bleier, Tom Rathman, Matt Suhey, John L. Williams, Larry Csonka. It was a different game.
Out of curiousity, I pulled out the numbers from 20 years ago. In the 1991 season, there were about 15 fullbacks who ran for over 100 yards. Some of these guys, I found, were tough to label. Merril Hoge, Brad Muster, Rod Bernstine, Ironhead Heyward, Leroy Hoard, Keith Byars and John L. Williams were all fullbacks at times, but there were games where they were elevated into a featured role. They were Mike Tolbert-type guys.
Regardless, the point is the same. Teams aren’t using fullbacks now nearly as much as they have in the past.
As I’ve pointed out in the past a couple of times, it’s this dynamic that has led to what many call the rise of what people like to call the philosophy of “running back by committee.” I don’t agree with that. In reality, teams aren’t using their No. 1 tailbacks any less than in the past. If you look at touchdowns, yards or carries, those No. 1 tailbacks are getting the ball just as much as they ever did. Look at 1,000-yard seasons, 100-yard games, carries by leading running backs or number of running backs scoring 10-plus touchdowns. I don’t see any merit in the RBBC theories.
Fullbacks aren’t around anymore. That’s the key. And somebody has had to step in and fill that void. It’s not realistic to expect the No. 1 backs to carry the ball even more (nobody can withstand that kind of punishment), so the No. 2 backs have gotten on the field a little more.
FULLBACKS RUNNING FOR OVER 100 YARDS, 2011
Att Yds Avg TD
121 490 4.0 8 Mike Tolbert, S.D.
17 112 6.6 0 Marcel Reece, Oak.
FULLBACKS RUNNING FOR OVER 100 YARDS, 20 YEARS AGO
Att Yds Avg TD
188 741 3.9 5 John L. Williams, Sea.
184 666 3.6 11 Brad Baxter, Jets
90 412 4.6 7 Brad Muster, Chi.
94 383 4.1 4 Keith Byars, NYJ
84 326 3.9 1 Keith Woodside, G.B.
62 265 4.3 2 Steve Smith, Oak.
57 262 4.6 4 Warren Williams, Pitt.
76 260 3.4 5 Ironhead Heyward, N.O.
63 183 2.9 6 Tom Rathman, S.F.
42 179 4.3 2 Robert Wilson, T.B.
37 154 4.2 11 Leroy Hoard, Clev.
33 153 4.6 2 Craig Taylor, Cin.
42 146 3.5 4 Carwell Gardner, Buff.
27 144 5.3 1 Tim Manoa, Ind.
32 109 3.4 0 Maurice Carthon, NYG
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