Nate Grubb is a freshman telecommunications major and writes for The Daily News. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper.
In Super Bowl LIV Feb. 2, 2020 in Tampa, FL, the NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers were down 10-3 against the AFC Champion Kansas City Chiefs with 5:13 to go in the second quarter, the 49ers set up in a trips bunch set. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo takes the snap and fakes a handoff to his only running back in the backfield, Tevin Coleman. Garoppolo then rolls right and fires a pass to Kyle Juszczyk, who gets hit by Chiefs safety Daniel Sorenson, stays on his feet and dives into the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown to tie the game. The touchdown graphic on the Fox broadcast coverage flashes up, displaying Juszczyk’s name, his number 44, and his position, fullback. Yet, Juszczyk was never lined up in the traditional fullback position. Why was a fullback lined up at a tight end spot, and, more importantly, is the position of fullback even necessary in today’s NFL?
The fullback position has always been a staple of football from the professional to the amateur field. Around the beginning days of the NFL, the fullback was seen as the premier runner. The popularization of the T-Formation in the early 1940s brought on the fullback renaissance. The T-Formation had the quarterback lined up behind the center, with three backs behind him: two halfbacks, usually faster players capable of beating defenders when handed the ball on the outside, and the fullback, positioned in between the two halfbacks, and usually got the majority of the carries, powering his way between the linemen. Most fullbacks were not typically fast. This era brought about some of the most acclaimed runners of all time.
The first notable fullback was former Chicago Bear Bronko Nagurski. Standing at 6’2” and weighing 235 lbs, Nagurski was bigger than most of the defenders he matched up against. He was nicknamed “The Monster” and rushed for nearly 4,000 yards in his eight-year career. Being the strongest player on the field, Nagurski notably carried defenders on him or with him to the end zone. Former Green Bay Packer Clarke Hinkle, regarded by many as one of the toughest players of his time, said “my biggest thrill in football was the day Bronko Nagurski announced his retirement.”
Many prominent rushing fullbacks came after Nagurski. Marion Motley of the Cleveland Browns became the first black player to lead the league in rushing yards in 1950, rushing for 810 yards. After Motley retired, Jim Brown took his place as the fullback for the Browns. Brown is regarded as one of the best rushers of all time, finishing his career with three MVPs, eight All-Pro selections, nine Pro Bowls and an NFL Championship in 1964 while leading the league in rushing yards eight times and rushing touchdowns five times. In the 1970s, Franco Harris of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Larry Csonka of the Miami Dolphins rose to prominence as great rushers, winning back-to-back Super Bowl MVPs for the position, Csonka in Super Bowl VIII and Harris in Super Bowl IX.
In the 1980s, the position of fullback changed. Fullbacks were now seen more as extra blockers for halfbacks and were only given the ball in short-yardage situations as the I-Formation became more popular. There were still some rushing fullbacks in the 1980s and 90s like John Riggins of the now-Washington Commanders, who won Super Bowl XVII MVP, and Christian Okoye of the Kansas City Chiefs, who is the last pure fullback to lead the NFL in rushing yards, going for 1,480 yards in 1989.
In the 2000s, the blocking fullback fully came into effect in the NFL. Fullbacks like Tony Richardson, Vonta Leach and Lorenzo Neal blocked for Pro Bowl running backs like Priest Holmes, Larry Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Arian Foster and LaDanian Tomlinson. Neal, in particular, blocked for a running back that ran for over 1,000 yards for 11 straight seasons.
Fullbacks now have gotten less and less action in the backfield as single back and shotgun formations have become the norm, but many have seen time lined up at the tight end position and sometimes at receiver. Current fullbacks like Juszczyk, C.J. Ham of the Minnesota Vikings, Andy Janovich of the Denver Broncos and Patrick Ricard of the Baltimore Ravens have more career receiving yards than career rushing yards despite being listed at fullback.
Currently, there are only 25 fullbacks who have a contract in the NFL. The fullback position is dying, slowly becoming just another name for tight end. Even college players know this, as many college fullbacks, including Ball State’s Cody Rudy, have begun working out and labeling themselves as fullback/tight end hybrids, or just tight ends, despite having no experience at the position full time. In the future, the NFL may evolve past the need for big, bruising power backs who clear paths for their running backs while lined up in the backfield. The NFL has already evolved past fullbacks as runners.
The days of seeing Nagurski, Motley, Brown, Harris and Csonka run their ways to Super Bowl and regular season MVPs are behind us and the days of bruiser-blockers like Richardson, Leach and Neal are coming to a close. Now, the final chapter for the fullbacks may be being written as runners become receivers.
Is there even a need for the “fullback” position in today’s NFL?
A fullback hasn’t led the league in rushing yards since Okoye in 1989 and a fullback hasn’t led his team in rushing yards since 2010 when Peyton Hillis ran for 1,177 yards for the Cleveland Browns. Even then, after he found his worth running the ball, he was promptly switched into a running back. To find the last time a true fullback led his team in rushing yards, go back to 2008 when Le’Ron McClain rushed for 902 yards, leading the Baltimore Ravens. This past season, Ham led all fullbacks in rushing yards in a season. His 34 yards ranked him 193rd in total rushing yards.
The NFL is constantly evolving. Will we see another day when fullbacks become leading rushers? Or will the NFL evolve to never see the need for another fullback ever again?