The most underused weapon in football today, in my honest opinion, is the fullback (FB). The legendary greats and their deeds, have through time, receded to the anonymity of being just another blocker. At the pro level, and in increasing numbers at the college level, and even at the high school level, the FB has been relegated to a lesser percent of the offense's plays, if indeed, a FB is even employed in an offense. This is due to various reasons, including the offensive philosophy, spread offenses, and, in my opinion, too many one back sets. Former Dallas Cowboy personnel director, Gil Brandt, has gone so far as to label the position as "virtually nonexistent."
Using the Pittsburgh Steelers offers a current example of the decline of the FB in football, but parallels could be used for other teams from the past, both college and pro. The Pittsburgh Steelers' FB, Dan Kreider, entered this year's Superbowl with a gaudy 7.0 yards per carry average…on three rushing attempts. Three carries for the whole season! Of course, as the Steelers struggled to mount an offense during the game, Dan got zilch in the way of carries in Super Bowl XL. Not exactly the Steeler's of the 70's, when you consider that Notre Dame's own Rocky Bleier once complemented Franco Harris, and despite being a devastating blocker also had, with Harris, a 1000-yard rushing season in 1976. Think back to the Dolphins of Kick and Csonka and you get the same complimentary package with the running game. Just for the record, Csonka was the last FB elected to the NFL Hall of Fame way back in 79.
Since we all know that football coaches look at opponents and see what works for them and then copy it, especially if it's novel, we have seen the one back offense implemented at all levels, three or four receivers, and an emphasis on running the stretch play. Yet, many teams that copy or implement this type of formation find themselves becoming a passive running team, almost inept at short yardage situations. All Irish fans can just look back a few years and remember that feeling.
I find this appalling, as anyone who knows me can attest. There seems to be a general malaise in giving the ball to the fullback, if indeed one even has a FB in their offense. This malaise is by choice, but I often wonder if, in the copycat world of football, that it's a sad omission. An omission, that in that few seem to remember that it is legal for the FB to carry the ball more than once or twice a game, if at all. To me, this is a mistake, or if you will, a personal loss, which I will elaborate on later. There is a primeval beauty about smash mouth football that I love, and there is also a mindset, to me at least, that a FB should be a larger part of any offense aside from blocking. I might also add that most coaches feel their squad is tougher if it features smash mouth, and therefore more apt to hang in there when misfortune rears.
Now I'm not going to pretend that the offenses we've run were anything close to those at the college or pro level, but we did use the fullback. The irony here is that I had to lobby for using the FB, as more than a blocker, more years ago than I'd like to recall, even at the junior high school level. I started coaching at the junior high level and was assigned as assistant freshman coach with the responsibilities of defensive coordinator, quarterback coach, running back coach, defensive back coach, and pass defense coordinator. (That's what you do when you are one of two coaches.) The head coach handled both lines, offensively and defensively and the linebackers for run defense. He also was the offensive coordinator. He was, and is, a great guy, but he never, I mean NEVER, ran the FB, or let him catch a pass. The only time our FB handled the ball was jumping on a fumble. It took two years of lobbying and cajoling him to let me call offensive plays when the scrubs came in, and gradually we began to employ the FB more and more, and that was more years ago than I'd like to remember. This, even back then, was just another indication of the coaching trend where the FB was being phased out as a runner and becoming just a backfield guard. When I later became a head coach in junior high, followed by head JV coach, I can assure you that the FB was prominently featured, no matter what scheme we ran offensively.
Some will argue that it's too hard to find the right player that I am campaigning for in this the position. They would argue that it's too hard to find a player of that presumed combination of size, speed and tenacious blocking, so necessary in today's game, where all three aspects are at a premium, but the major need of taking on 300-pound defensive linemen and 250-pound linebackers rules the offensive schemes. I would argue that if such was the case you wouldn't see Navy, Air Force, and other option teams running their forms of the Wishbone offense and featuring FB's that don't approach the size of preconceived ideas about the "ideal" FB.
Yes, they are forced to option football by the nature of their talent, but that FB still piles up yards and he still blocks. As to size needed relative to engaging huge DT, DE's and LB's then I point out Darious Walker as a pass blocker. He's not the size of a FB, yet he gets the job done because he takes pride in it and is a tough kid. Granted, we don't see Darious run blocking, but I bet you he could do very well were he called upon to do so.
Ashap Schwapp is, IMHO, the ideal type that coaches want today to fulfill their offensive philosophy, and has a great future ahead of him, but I'll wager we won't see him run the ball very often over the next three years. Notre Dame getting another Jerome Bettis would seem to be a pipe dream. Sigh.
The essential requisite for becoming a FB, to me at least, isn't size as much as it's a kid's toughness. I've coached kids in the position, at the high school level, that were 150 pounds, but tough. I also coached a barely 100-pound FB in freshman football that was just tough as nails. A FB, in the true sense of what the position used to be, must be tough, both as a runner and a blocker. Again, this leads to smash mouth football, and I make no apologies for loving it. (Of course, I went ape with Coach Weis's destruction of so many defenses this past year with the pass, but one close one that got away, the USC game, the one that hurt so bad. Notre Dame had a fairly balanced offense, if not in yards, at least in the approach, and save the two turnovers, and one dropped pass, it would have won the game for the Irish.)
Why do I espouse the FB when offenses are scoring points at record pace? Who needs the FB to be more involved in today's offenses? Well, let's just look at a few aspects of FB being used to the offense's advantage. In 1991, the Irish averaged 35.5 points per regular season game. The FB was Jerome Bettis. (Yeah, I know he also ran from the TB spot as well, but remember, this is partially a rant.) You can score beaucoup points with a running offense, and the advantages are many. You control the ball, making it harder for their offense to score, and limiting their opportunities to score. You rest your defense because a running game uses more of the clock. You also wear their defense down. Third-and-short plays, as well as goal line plays, are not as iffy if you are a good running team that uses the FB effectively. Think back, although painful to do so, to the number of times Ryan Grant was stopped on short yardage plays from a one back set. So frustrating.
Also, what does every defensive coordinator drone on about during press conferences? Stopping the run, right? Why make it easier for the DC to defend the run by running only from one position? Let's face it, back in the days when the Irish hardly threw to the tight ends, the defenses didn't knock themselves out covering them. Same applies to worrying about the FB running the ball. If he doesn't carry it you don't worry about him and concentrate your defense on the TB.
What does a FB bring to an offense? Again, in my opinion, if used more than as a blocking back, he keeps the defense honest. As an example, who knows how many more yards Walker, Grant, or Jones may have had because one defensive player, on any given play, is just slowed enough by a fake to the FB, a fake that relies on the FB having actually carried the ball previously. That is, of course, providing that a FB is even in there when Walker, Grant or Jones was carrying the ball. I'm not being critical of Coach Weis here, he knows more about offense than I ever will, and this is not an indictment against his offense. I would never do that. Remember, this is just a nostalgic rant. Take whatever you want from this about Coach Weis's predecessors.
Two specific reasons for espousing more use of the FB as a runner, as well as a blocker, are two-fold. First, the FB generally runs right at the defense, and by implementing this aspect of a running attack you establish two things: One, you find out what the defense is going to do and where they are. Two, you establish yourself as a physical football team. Contrary to the image I am saddled with by fellow board coaches (and you guys know who you are ?), I'm not above trickery or passing in play selection. But the concept of smash mouth football, dominating the opponent, and making him lose heart appeals to me. You can achieve the same blank look from a DC that we saw this year, in a certain Big Ten DC, by running the ball effectively.
In the next installment I'll be less emotional, less all over the place, and will objectively discuss the use of the FB in the running game. Well, ...maybe.