Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Where Have All the Fullbacks Gone?

By Anthony Brancato

In the 1958 NFL championship game (there was no Super Bowl in those days), Alan "The Horse" Ameche, who stood six feet tall and weighed 218 pounds — absolutely gargantuan for a running back of his era — barreled into the end zone from one yard out to give the then-Baltimore Colts a 23-17 overtime victory over the New York Giants, in what is still regarded by most as the greatest pro football game ever played.

The 6-foot-2, 232-pound Jim Brown entered the NFL two years after Ameche, and he became the greatest ball carrier of all-time. He was followed in his turn by Matt Snell — "At 6-3, 230, there's a lot of me to fill," as he reminded the viewers of a beer commercial — and after him, the 6-foot-2, 230-pound John Riggins, who was noted for his sure-handedness with the ball as much as how many yards he gained while carrying it — in 1983, his statistically most productive season, he lost just three fumbles in 375 carries while leading the league with 1,347 yards and an NFL-record (at the time) 24 touchdowns, all of them rushing.

And what position were these guys said to have played?

Fullback.

Back in the days when the I-formation predominated, in addition to the quarterback taking the snap from the center, the man behind him in the formation was known as the halfback, and the man behind him, the fullback. This was the origin of all three of these terms — but today only "quarterback" has survived, at least in its original meaning anyway, with the definition of "halfback" changed to a smaller runner who relied on speed and elusiveness (Washington's Larry Brown probably having been the first running back to be so labeled), and "fullback" denoting a physical, power back, irrespective of where each lined up (and in the days immediately following the era when the same players played on both sides of the ball, the term "defensive halfback" was used instead of today's "cornerback," which became universal by the late 1960s).

Some teams use blocking backs in their schemes and refer to them as "fullbacks" — but unlike their predecessors, they hardly ever, or maybe even never, actually carry the ball (even in the golden age of the old-school fullback one would see this occasionally — such as with Jim Braxton, who was part of "The Electric Company" that turned on "The Juice" at Buffalo in the 1970s). One variant was a fullback who only got the ball in short-yardage and/or goal-line situations — the par-excellence example of this having been Booker Russell, who, playing for the Raiders, had three carries for three yards and three touchdowns (and had no touches otherwise) in a game against the Chargers on October 25, 1979 (Russell went 6-2, 223).

But does this mean that big, bruising running backs have become a thing of the past?

Hardly.

Indeed, the 6-foot-4, 264-pound Brandon Jacobs transcended the genre of the classical fullback — and he didn't come upon the scene until 2005 (he gained 1,089 yards and scored 15 touchdowns in 2008, his best season). Four years later came the 6-foot-1, 234-pound Rashad Jennings who, when it came to not fumbling, out-Rigginsed Riggins, with only two lost fumbles in 930 lifetime carries.

Today's contingent of what used to be called fullbacks is headed by Tennessee's 6-foot-3, 247-pound Derrick Henry, who quite literally has busted down the door of the "Alabama Running Back Jinx" (and has just plain straight-line speed not generally seen in a back his size) and the 6-foot-1, 220-pound Adrian Peterson, who is still going strong at age 34. Booker Russell has even had a version 2.0 of sorts in the 6-foot-2, 238-pound Jackie Battle, who, in eight seasons with the Chiefs, Chargers and Titans (from 2007 through 2014), had 326 carries, 70 of which went for first downs, and nine for touchdowns.

If there can be power forwards and small forwards in the NBA, then why can't we bring back the fullbacks and halfbacks in the NFL?

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