With the constant media spotlight on the NFL, it’s not easy for a player to fly under the radar – unless you’re a fullback.
In an era of specialization and increased passing, fullbacks have become something of a dying breed. About half the league doesn’t even employ a fullback. But, for those who do use a fullback, their job description is similar to that of a mercenary. They’re hired guns.
In Sunday’s game between the Vikings and Packers, fans are going to see two of the better fullbacks in the league – Green Bay’s John Kuhn and Minnesota’s Zach Line. Kuhn has made a name for himself as a fan favorite in Green Bay, where fans chant his name every time he touches the ball.
Line doesn’t have that sort of rabid fan adoration, but he has become a more important part of the Vikings lineup. He has sniped a couple of short touchdowns away from Adrian Peterson and has two receptions – one of them a 49-yard catch and run that set up the Vikings offense for another touchdown.
Line had two big hurdles to get over becoming the starting fullback for the Vikings. He was replacing a prototype fullback in Jerome Felton and Peterson had a history of being public about not appreciating having a fullback in front of him, insinuating at times they merely slow him down as he hits a hole.
A.P. loved Felton, however, so Line felt he had paved the way for him to transition into the position much in the same way he tries to plow the road in front of Peterson. In the end, he has won over Peterson and become a valued – if somewhat anonymous – member of the offense. That’s saying something, since Line was aware of Peterson’s lack of affection for his position.
“Yeah, I heard that said about him,” Line said. “Since I’ve been here, he’s always had a good fullback in Jerome. I learned a lot from him. The fullback position evolves during a game depending on what the coaches see. They’re going to have a plan in place for us against Green Bay’s defense and I’m ready to do whatever I can to do my part.”
The fullback is a strange position in that it is contrary to other skill positions in an offense. Quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends all look to avoid contact and get as far with the ball as they possibly can. Fullbacks are just the opposite.
They seek out contact and play with more of a defensive attack mentality than a finesse, get-around-you style. Fullbacks don’t run around defenders. They run to them and through them.
Line said his job gets more fun as the season goes on. When everyone is healthy at the start of a year, linebackers try to make a name for themselves by blowing up fullbacks. As nagging aches and pains acquired during the season hit home, they take on a different look, which plays to the strengths of guys like Line.
“It’s getting more and more enjoyable as the season goes on,” Line said. “I think early in the season, linebackers are much more ready to fill the hole and take on blocks. As the season goes on, you just keep on coming and you see them trying to play off blocks and trying to avoid you. That opens up big lanes for Adrian to run through. It’s something you’re able to see – some of the linebackers not wanting to take on contact anymore, so you know you’re doing your job well.”
Another unique aspect of playing fullback is that there aren’t statistics that clearly quantify who is the best at his positions. Defensive backs have interceptions and passes defensed. Linebackers have tackles and forced fumbles. Defensive linemen have sacks. Quarterbacks have touchdowns. Running backs have yards. Receivers have catch totals.
Fullbacks? Not much, especially if they’re pure fullbacks like Line, who is rarely asked to run the ball or catch passes. He’s a human missile whose job is to open holes for a running back or protect a quarterback. When he’s doing his job well, he rarely gets noticed by the casual observer. But Line hangs his hat on being able to deliver the block that can spring Peterson for a huge gain.
“I take lot of pride in that,” Line said. “That’s my job. I try to be as perfect as I can in my blocking. I never want my guy to make a play, and if I can take out two guys on a play, more power to me.”
Although he’s an unsung hero on offense, Line is feeling the same momentum that the rest of his teammates are experiencing as the Vikings are garnering national attention as one of the top teams of 2015 to this point. Winning is infectious and it’s showing on the practice field, the meeting rooms and in games.
Winning is the salve that cures all. Players have an extra little hitch in their giddy-up. Even the mundane chores during the preparation for game day are looser and more fun. Success will do that for you and Line sees that mood in the locker room carrying over from week to week as the wins keep mounting.
“My running backs coach in college asked us what we thought came first – confidence or success?” Line said. “For me, if you have success, you have more and more confidence. I think that’s what you’re seeing with us. We keep being successful at what we’re doing, so we know it’s working. We’ve got the winning formula and that’s just keep grinding and working hard.”
Sunday’s game with the Packers is going to have a lot of implications for both teams. With a win, the Vikings can open up a two-game lead over Green Bay that would, in reality, be a three-game lead since it would make the Vikings 4-0 in the NFC North and in control of all tie-breaker scenarios head to head with the Packers.
But until the Vikings knock Green Bay off its perch atop the NFC North, they’ve proved nothing. The Packers would technically be back in first place based on head-to-head performance, despite both teams being 7-3.
Line knows the implications of Sunday’s game and, like many of his teammates, he isn’t getting ahead of himself. Green Bay isn’t going to go down without a fight and the Vikings are hoping they are ready to finally dethrone the king of the division.
“This is a big game,” Line said. “It’s a big rivalry game. They’ve been the big dog in our division for some time now. It’s nice to be on top now because to be the man you have to beat the man. They’re good at what they do and we’ll all have to play a great game.”
At the end of the day Sunday, Line’s contribution to what the Vikings hope will be a defining win won’t be easily identifiable on the stat sheet. Yet, his role is just as important as most of his teammates and he’s ready to be the lead dog on the sled team opening holes for Peterson and making for a long, painful day for the Packers.