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Jim Trotter
October 22, 2007
Blocked Out
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October 22, 2007

The Nfl

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Blocked Out

In today's hot offenses, the true fullback is a vanishing breed, but Lorenzo Neal and a few other stalwarts carry on

WHEN THE Chargers go to a spread formation, veteran fullback Lorenzo Neal often can be seen standing on the sideline with his hands on his hips and a look of irritation on his face. The frustration in those situations stems from San Diego's use of a tight end to do the job for which Neal has been trained: clearing a patch for All-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson. "I'm not going to lie. I do become perturbed when I see a tight end running lead draw for us," Neal, a 15-year veteran, said last week. "It's not to disrespect any of the coaches, but I'm ticked when I see a tight end doing plays that are made for fullbacks."

Decades ago there was a clear distinction in responsibility: Tight ends blocked at the line of scrimmage, fullbacks from the backfield. But that distinction began to blur in the 1980s, when Redskins coach Joe Gibbs, seeking matchup advantages, turned to hybrid players: H-backs, who were big and strong enough to block effectively at the line or out of the backfield, yet athletic enough to win one-on-one battles as receivers. ( Chris Cooley currently fills that role for Gibbs in Washington.)

The more success Gibbs had, the more other teams, including those at the college level, adopted variations of his blueprint. The result has been a gradual decline in the number of traditional blocking fullbacks at the game's highest level. This season only two NFL teams, the Browns and the Panthers, have started a true fullback in every game; the Bills, Chiefs, Colts, Lions and Rams have yet to start a traditional fullback.

"The reason you don't see as many of the old-school fullbacks is that there aren't as many being trained in college," says Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, who lined up fullback Terrelle Smith on 29 of 57 offensive plays last Sunday. "More teams are running spread offenses in college, so there's less importance being placed on the fullback. Spread offenses allow you to create mismatches. The fullback of old is limited in those situations because [he is] required to have some ability to win one-on-one pass situations. You would see that more from a tight end."

If the value of a position is measured by its prominence in the draft, fullback is near the bottom of the list these days. William Floyd was the last true fullback selected in the first round—and that was in 1994, by the 49ers. But up through the '70s some of the game's top ballcarriers manned the position. Hall of Famers such as Bronko Nagurski, Marion Motley, Jim Taylor, Jim Brown, Larry Csonka and John Riggins had the ability to run, catch and block, that last duty having the lowest priority.

As offenses evolved, the fullback slipped more and more into the role that Neal knows well: Rushing and pass-catching skills were secondary to blocking ability. As one team's scout says, fullbacks came to be viewed as guards whose brains had been knocked out. Their primary assignments were to create holes for tailbacks and to protect the quarterback. Players interested in personal glory need not apply. That was fine with Neal. His name did not appear alongside Tomlinson's atop the rushing list last season, but anyone who watched the Chargers recognized Neal's importance to Tomlinson's achievement. In fact, it was the 10th consecutive season that Neal had cleared a path for a 1,000-yard rusher.

Now even the traditional blocking fullback is a disappearing breed, as evidenced last week when one of the league's standouts, the Seahawks' Mack Strong, retired because of a herniated disc in his neck. As remarkable as Strong's 13-plus seasons with the same team may have been, consider his career stat line: In 201 games he totaled 230 rushing attempts and 218 receptions—or only 2.2 touches per game. Neal, who has averaged even fewer touches (1.8 over 216 games), says he plans to walk away when his contract expires after the 2010 season.

In the meantime fullbacks will continue to work in relative anonymity and prove their value by their very presence. On Sunday, for instance, the visiting Raiders had cut the San Diego lead to 21--14 with just over five minutes remaining, and following a pass on first down Turner called five consecutive running plays. (He had been roundly criticized during a 1--3 start for not keeping the ball on the ground.) The last resulted in a touchdown, on a 41-yard carry by Tomlinson, to seal the win. Who was in there blocking on all five plays? Lorenzo Neal.

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