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Archive for Monday, November 27, 2006

Forgotten fullbacks

Position falls out of favor in NFL

November 27, 2006

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John Riggins was the type of player kids loved emulating.

He was a bruising runner with a mean streak and big shoulder pads who plowed through defenders and dragged them along for the ride all the way to the Hall of Fame.

But that was back in a long-lost era when fullbacks were ball-carrying bulls and integral parts of team's game plans. Today, being a fullback just doesn't have that attractiveness.

"A fullback now is kind of a tight end and a lineman," said Riggins, a former Kansas University star. "They've got to be able to pass block and drive block it's almost like a pulling guard. That really is as good as it gets for a fullback in contemporary NFL football, with the exceptional draw play, of course."

Kids don' want to be fullbacks anymore. It's not a glamorous position, and at least two teams - Dallas and Indianapolis - don't carry any true fullbacks on their active rosters.

"It's really hard to find guys that still want to do it, go in there and pound and hit people in the mouth," said Minnesota's Tony Richardson, a former Kansas City Chief. "We're kind of the last of a dying breed."

Some of the game's greatest runners were primarily fullbacks: Riggins, Jim Brown, Franco Harris, Ernie Nevers, Bronko Nagurski, Marion Motley and Larry Csonka - all Hall of Famers. They carried the ball, caught it and blew open holes for running backs.

Fullbacks are mainly blockers now who catch occasional passes and rarely carry the ball. Last weekend, 20 of 32 teams started with a fullback lined up in the backfield. Of those, 14 were actual fullbacks. Five others were tight ends, and one, Dallas' Oliver Hoyte, was a linebacker. That doesn't include Seattle fullback Mack Strong, who lined up as a wide receiver to start the Seahawks' game at San Francisco.

Only three fullbacks - Tampa Bay's Mike Alstott, Carolina's Brad Hoover and Oakland's Zack Crockett - had at least five carries Nov. 19.

The position has also seen a dropoff in the college ranks, with many schools filling the spot with any big bodies available.

"I think the traditional go-ahead, get-in-the-hole fullback is not here any more," said Alstott, a six-time Pro Bowler. "You try to disguise things and put fullbacks in the slot, use them as tight ends, and you have to get unique players (to fill those roles)."

The position gradually has evolved or devolved, depending on who you talk to. The last fullback drafted in the first round was William Floyd in 1994. Only nine have been taken in the second or third rounds since 1997.

"I don't think that it'll ever be extinct, but it's pretty darned close," said Gil Brandt, a senior analyst for NFL.com, who was Dallas' vice president of player personnel from 1960-89.

In the last 10 drafts, 14 tight ends have been taken in the first round, and 49 in the second and third rounds. Teams generally see more value in drafting tight ends who can catch, block and line up as fullbacks the way Dallas' Anthony Fasano and Washington's Mike Sellers do, to name a couple.

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