SI Vault
 
Crash Course
Peter King
October 30, 2000
Fullbacks are the game's forgotten men, but offenses would be a wreck if not for the guys who play with reckless abandon
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
October 30, 2000

Crash Course

Fullbacks are the game's forgotten men, but offenses would be a wreck if not for the guys who play with reckless abandon

View CoverRead All Articles
1 2 3 4

He doesn't mind his role. "I love my job," says the 5'11", 240-pound Neal. "The linebacker's coming, and someone's got to fill the hole. The gratification comes when I block someone really well, and our guys walk into the locker room at halftime and say, 'Did you see Lo launch into that guy? Did you see that little missile launch himself?' Eddie appreciates me, and that means a lot. I had a good game blocking for him last year against the Saints, and Eddie got the game ball. He turned around and handed it to me."

Good hands. If a fullback wants to touch the ball, his best opportunities will come in the passing game. The emphasis on catching over running has spawned some good receivers at fullback—the Chiefs' Tony Richardson, the Jets' Richie Anderson, Floyd, the Bucs' Mike Alstott and Ayanbadejo, an undrafted second-year player who has caught 23 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown. But as receivers they all pale in comparison to the Washington Redskins' Larry Centers, who in his 11-year career has 640 catches, an NFL record for a running back. Centers is a throwback, unlike most of today's fullbacks in that he's an offensive threat and not much of a blocker. In fact, on most short-yardage situations, he is replaced by Mike Sellers.

Most teams are looking for a player who can block and catch with equal effectiveness. The Giants have found one in Cornelia, an undrafted free agent in 1998 who had learned to catch at Stanford while playing for Bill Walsh. " Coach Walsh called the pass to the fullback the extended handoff," Cornelia says. "It gets you out in space and lets you try to make a play."

Find a player who is superb in each of these areas and, says Ravens coach Brian Billick, you have a first-round draft choice. Since 1990 only three fullbacks have been selected in the first round: Jarrod Bunch, the 27th choice in 1991 by the Giants; Tommy Vardell, taken with the ninth pick by the Cleveland Browns in '92; and Floyd, whom the San Francisco 49ers got with the last pick in Round 1 of the '94 draft. "The emphasis is on more one-back sets, with less power and more speed," says Parcells. "The colleges have gone away from developing fullbacks. Look on the draft board every year. Fullbacks aren't there."

In fact, last April one NFC team considered only two fullbacks to be draftworthy—Arizona State's Terrelle Smith and Michigan's Aaron Shea—and had neither one of them rated higher than a fifth-round choice. Smith, the first fullback selected, went to the New Orleans Saints with the 96th pick. Shea, also a fourth-round selection, landed with the Browns, but he was moved to tight end. Deon Dyer ( Miami, fourth round), Sammy Morris (Buffalo, fifth round) and Mike Green ( Tennessee, seventh round) were also drafted, but Morris is the only other rookie fullback who is starting.

"The guy I want at fullback is a power forward in the NBA," says Billick. "Maybe not that tall, but 6'3", 245 pounds, runs a 4.5 in the 40. You can't find that guy, so you're always pissed at your fullback. He's too small at the point of attack. Too slow to block the pass rushers consistently. A good fullback today has good hands and might not knock you over, but he can chicken-fight you to the end."

Even some of the best blocking fullbacks are sent packing with some regularity. The Titans are the fourth team for the 29-year-old Neal. He was picked up before the 1999 season to be a hammer for franchise running back Eddie George, who had been working primarily out of single-and H-back sets. "We were missing an ingredient in our running game," says Tennessee coach Jeff Fisher. "We needed someone to take that first hit on a running play, someone who would take pride in clearing holes. Lorenzo has made us more diverse in the run game because when he's in there we can basically do anything we want with Eddie—attack, draw, throw to him, sweep." George was leading the AFC in rushing and had three consecutive 100-yard games before injuring his right knee on his first carry against the Ravens on Sunday.

Probably the two best all-around fullbacks—and the only ones who can carry a team's rushing load—are Richardson (4.2 yards per carry since the start of last season) and Alstott (the NFL's 15th-leading rusher last year). They're anomalies. Both block well. Alstott has terrific feet, Richardson great hands. Both run low and drag tacklers. Some scouts don't consider Alstott a fullback because he often lines up in one-back sets. But, like Richardson, he has the trails that every team looks for in a fullback.

Those two, however, are among the few fullbacks who can strike fear in a defense. Through Sunday, 65 players had run for at least 100 yards on the season. Fourteen quarterbacks were on the list; only five fullbacks made it.

More common is what happened on Sept. 24 when the San Diego Chargers unveiled their secret weapon: fullback Fred McCrary. In 19 previous games with the Chargers, McCrary had zero carries. But against Seattle, coach Mike Riley thought he could catch the defense off guard, so he ran McCrary on three of the first five snaps...for a total of three yards. McCrary ran two more times for six yards against Seattle, but hasn't had a carry since.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4