Where have the good fullbacks gone in the NFL?
Posted on Fri, Sep. 22, 2006
By Charean Williams
McClatchy Newspapers

FORT WORTH, Texas - As a former fullback who played for a team with a rich history of fullbacks, former Dallas Cowboy Walt Garrison is pained by what is happening at the position these days.

"I wouldn't have a job if I played today," said a chuckling Garrison, who played for the Dallas Cowboys from 1966 to `74.

The Jim Taylors, the Marion Motleys, the Bronko Nagurskis, the Rocky Bleiers, the Tom Rathmans and the Daryl Johnstons have disappeared the way of the leather helmet. Fullbacks are a dying breed.

Sixteen teams - exactly half of the NFL - have started a game this season with either two tight ends or three receivers, leaving the fullback on the sideline looking on. Only 34 fullbacks, including those on practice squads, are listed on the rosters of the 32 teams on nfl.com.

"It's like the Pleistocene era," Cowboys coach Bill Parcells said. "They had all these different types of large animals roaming the earth, but the majority, I know, are extinct. That's what is happening to the fullbacks."

Gil Brandt, the former Cowboys player personnel director and an NFL historian, said eight teams used two-tight-end sets at least 45 percent of the time last season, and he expects that number to rise this season. The Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers are among the teams who are playing more two-tight-end sets this season.

"Everybody is using the tight end as a weapon now," Brandt said.

Fullbacks, though, used to be the weapon of choice.

Packers fullback Jim Taylor is in the Hall of Fame, as is his backfield mate, halfback Paul Hornung. In the eight seasons they shared the backfield in Green Bay, Taylor led the team in rushing six times and outgained Hornung by 3,797 yards.

The Hall of Fame counts eight fullbacks among its 235 members, including Jim Brown, whom, some argue, was more of a halfback. But John Riggins, who retired after the 1985 season, is the most recent fullback inductee into Canton.

No one has had better fullbacks than the Cowboys, who count Don Perkins, Garrison, Robert Newhouse, Ron Springs, Timmy Newsome, and Johnston as alumni. Some, such as Perkins, primarily were runners; some, such as Springs, made their names as receivers; others, such as Johnston, were almost strictly blockers. The NFL even added a Pro Bowl spot for the fullback during the 1993 season to honor Johnston.

But Lousaka Polite, who is less known than kicker Mike Vanderjagt or offensive guard Marco Rivera, is carrying the torch for the Cowboys this season.

"In older times, the fullback was more of an integral part of the offense, but the league has changed," said Polite, who in three seasons has two rushing attempts and 10 receptions. "It's a new era."

In the golden era of the fullback, players such as Clarke Hinkle and Nagurski also played linebacker. Today, would-be fullbacks are choosing to play linebacker. It is a recent trend, begun when high schools and colleges turned to passing offenses devoid of a fullback.

In the past seven NFL Drafts, only 35 fullbacks were selected, including four each of the past three years. William Floyd was the last fullback selected in the first round, going 28th overall to the 49ers in 1994.

"There aren't a lot of college teams out there that play the traditional fullback position, and a lot of those athletes are going to defense as linebackers," Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage said. "There just aren't a lot of guys to choose from to begin with, and then as the game has gotten more spread out, the need for the fullback position is a luxury."

Teams that do use a traditional fullback, such as Green Bay, San Diego, Minnesota, Seattle and Detroit, pay for it. The Seahawks re-signed Mack Strong to a three-year, $3.16 million deal in the off-season, and the Vikings gave free agent Tony Richardson, a two-time Pro Bowl player for the Chiefs, a two-year, $2.5 million deal.

"Lorenzo Neal will forever go down in the books as one of the best ever," Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher said of his team's fullback in 1999-2000. "If you get one of those, you've got to keep him."

Neal, who moved to the Bengals in 2001 and is now with the Chargers, and Strong are in their 14th seasons. Cory Schlesinger (Lions) and Richardson are in their 12th seasons. Last season, Strong was voted the fullback on the NFC Pro Bowl team, while Neal represented the AFC.

For nine consecutive seasons, Neal has had a 1,000-yard back behind him, including LaDainian Tomlinson, Warrick Dunn, Eddie George and Corey Dillon. But Neal has only 175 career carries for 616 yards.

"I do eat meat, so of course I do feel like a dinosaur," Neal said. "But it doesn't matter. There is always going to be a need. It goes in phases. One year, it was the run-and-shoot. They say, `Oh, Indianapolis has got the spread offense, and that's what it's going to be.' Teams try it, and they can't do it like Indy, so they go back to something else. The NFL is very cyclical."