Quick now, can you tell me what you know about Charles Way, or William Henderson? Can you identify Kantroy Barber, or Le'Shai Maston, or Stanley Pritchett?
They're fullbacks. Blocking fullbacks. Big, burly, anonymous guys whose job is to draw a bead on a linebacker stationed in the hole and root him out of there. And, yes, if they can catch a few passes, so much the better because the serious coverage will be devoted to flashier guys.
You say you want to carry the ball, like you did in college? Uh-uh, forget it, son. We've got other people paid to do that. You've got enough to keep you busy. But we'll let you be a runner once or twice a game, just to keep you happy. How's that?
Once, both the halfback and the fullback blocked and ran. Cowboys fullback Daryl Johnston changed the nature of the position. He was a runner at Syracuse, and for a while in 1989 (Jimmy Johnson's miserable 1-15 first year as coach), Dallas toyed with the idea of using him as the featured back. The next year, along came Emmitt Smith, and Johnston was assigned the virtually full-time job of being Smith's personal escort. Johnston's carries dropped from 67 in 1989 to 10 in '90.
The two-tight-end offense had been the blue plate special in the NFL. It is an alignment that was refined, according to former Raiders coach and current Fox analyst John Madden, to control the Giants' All-Pro linebacker Lawrence Taylor, "to take away his open rush lane and put someone in his face." You could get a running game going behind the double tights, although some people, such as Bill Walsh, firmly believe that it's less efficient than the fullback-halfback combination. "The fullback has better blocking angles," Walsh says, "and better vision."
Leading the way for Smith and slipping out of the backfield to catch his share of third-down passes, Johnston became the hammer for the Cowboys, who have won three Super Bowls in the past four years. Coaches, as we know, are notorious copiers, and pretty soon they were all looking for that someone, a big guy with decent hands and a willingness to trade rushing yardage for collisions. It has become the NFL's fashionable position.
Way is the blocker for the Giants' Rodney Hampton. A 6'0", 245-pounder, Way has plenty of muscle and, surprise, some pass-catching ability. In the opener against the Bills, he led all Giants receivers with four catches for 78 yards, including a 37-yarder for a score. Henderson, Green Bay's 248-pound second-year fullback, has relegated 235-pound Dorsey Levens to backup running back. In their 34-3 opening-day blowout of the Bucs, the Packers ran for more yardage (139) than they had in all but one game last year. Barber, a 243-pound rookie on the Patriots, is not ready to start yet, but he has coach Bill Parcells drooling with anticipation. Maston is the Jaguars' heavy-duty blocker. In the Jaguars' 24-9 opening-day win over the Steelers, they controlled the clock with 36 running plays, more than they had in 15 games last year.
At Miami, Pritchett is Jimmy Johnson's new Daryl Johnston. Sunday in the Dolphins' 38-10 defeat of Arizona, Pritchett had no carries and only one reception for 13 yards but delivered crunching lead blocks for fellow rookie Karim Abdul-Jabbar's three-yard touchdown runs. Johnson drafted Pritchett in the fourth round even though he hadn't shown any great talent as a blocker at South Carolina. "He was 241 [pounds] and he ran a 4.6 [in the 40], and he was willing," Johnson says. "The last part was the most important, the willingness. I figured, hell, I'll teach him to block."
There's a downside to all this selflessness. These intrepid blockers can only take so many collisions. Ex-Dolphin Tony Paige, once the most feared blocking back in the league, got worn down by all the contact. He was burned out before he was 30. The Steelers' Merril Hoge went from featured back to blocker when Barry Foster arrived. He was functionally finished at 28, finally retiring a year later after two concussions suffered during a brief stint with the Bears.
Johnston is aware of the perils of his position. "The other day someone told me there are only four fullbacks in the league 30 or older," notes the 30-year-old Johnston. He's right: They are Johnston and his teammate Herschel Walker, 34, plus the Chiefs' Kimble Anders, who was 30 on Sept. 10, and the Redskins' Marc Logan, 31. They get old, they burn out, the coaches plug in a new one. It's a cruel business.