DENVER – Remember fullbacks?
Thirty to 50 years ago, they were often a team’s most effective runners. Jim Taylor. Larry Csonka. John Riggins. Ricky Bell. Fullbacks all. Heck, Bell was the No. 1 overall pick in the 1977 NFL Draft and appeared en route to a brilliant career before falling ill with dermatomyositis and succumbing to its complications seven years later.
After Riggins retired and Bell died, their role changed, but they remained vital. Often they were like offensive linemen, only slightly more glamorous because they caught passes out of the backfield. They blasted holes for the runners behind them and absorbed some of the most violent hits provided in the sport. Occasionally you got one who could run effectively enough to get as many carries as your average running back — e.g. Tampa Bay’s Mike Alstott — or find one who was practically a third wide receiver out of the backfield — e.g. Arizona’s Larry Centers — but mostly they did the grunt work and weren’t even on the field in long-yardage situations.
Now, most teams treat second-and-5 the way they handled third-and-10 — they go receiver-heavy and use a solo back. And fullbacks face extinction.
Spencer Larsen’s departure for New England on Thursday night won’t cause much of a ripple, not with the NFL ocean still recovering from the three tsunamis that were the Peyton Manning signing, the Tim Tebow trade and the Saints’ massive suspensions for the bounty scandal. But it illuminates how the position is being de-emphasized — even by a coach who made more extensive use of it the last 10 years than any other.
Greater use of three- and four-wide receiver sets and the renaissance of the tight end as a downfield passing threat left fullbacks increasingly endangered in recent years. Some teams completely abandoned the position except when they faced third- or fourth-and-1 or goal-line situations.
John Fox was one of the few coaches to buck this trend. His offenses in Carolina made liberal use of Brad Hoover, an underrated converted tailback who could pick up a blitz as well as he could make a hole. He emerged from most games with more bruises than an over-ripened piece of fruit, but was effective enough to become the first fullback to block for two 1,100-yard runners in the same season — and pulled off that feat in his final year, 2009, before the Panthers showed him the exit in a veteran purge.
But Fox thought enough of the fullback in his offense that he snatched the first fullback off the draft board in 2009, Syracuse’s Tony Fiammetta. He struggled to pick up blitzes as a rookie and proved unready for a prominent role in his second year. When Fox was let go, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski hired and quarterback Cam Newton drafted, the Panthers’ offense turned 180 degrees and Fiammetta was out.
Fox inherited Spencer Larsen in 2011, and although the converted linebacker hasn’t grasped every nuance of the position, he had his best season last fall — when he was used. The installation of the zone-read option led the Broncos to increase their use of a second or third tight end as the supplemental blocker.
Now, with Peyton Manning aboard, the fullback is further diminished — but for a different reason entirely. On the rare occasions they will need a fullback — in short yardage and at the goal line — a tight end like Virgil Green might be just as effective, and would save a roster spot.
If the fullback can no longer flourish on Fox’s watch, how many places can he succeed? Larsen’s departure is another death knell for a position that might soon be as forgotten as the term “red dog.”