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Fade Pattern: Spread offenses have made once glamorous fullbacks nearly obsolete

They were the go-to source when you were in a bind and needed to make an important call. » They’re not as ubiquitous as they used to be. But the ones in operation remain boxy, durable and reliable. » Pay phones and fullbacks have a lot in common. » Fullbacks used to be the backbone of every NFL offense. Younger generations might be surprised to know Jim Brown was a fullback. So was Franco Harris. » “The fullback was the primary runner in the NFL,” Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells said. “Everybody had a fullback. That was their mainstay.” » From grainy, black-and-white images of Bronko Nagurski and Marion Motley to the Technicolor glory of Larry Csonka and John Riggins to the nouveau West Coast versatility of Roger Craig and Tom Rathman to the head-knocking Daryl Johnston and Lorenzo Neal, fullbacks were essential. » A mere 12 years ago, Larry Centers caught 80 passes for the Buffalo Bills and Mike Alstott scored 11 touchdowns for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Now, fullbacks are role players. Some of their duties are picked up by tight ends or defensive linemen.

On opening weekend, only two games featured fullbacks in both teams’ starting lineups. Five games didn’t include a starting fullback in either offense. Six teams didn’t activate any at all.

“It hurts,” Bills fullback Frank Summers said, “seeing the position almost gone.”

The Bills will see one of this generation’s last classic fullbacks this afternoon, when Vonta Leach and the Baltimore Ravens visit Ralph Wilson Stadium.

But even Leach, a three-time All-Pro, knows his position is in its gloaming. The Ravens released him in June because he was scheduled to make $3 million in the final year of his contract. The Ravens re-signed him after training camp began for $1 million less.

“We’re just trying to hold on,” Leach said with a chuckle this week. “We’re a fraternity within the NFL. I’m always watching other fullbacks in the league and how teams utilize them. Before and after a game, you always see fullbacks talking to each other.”

The fullback’s descent involves a confluence of reasons.

College football produces hardly any, forcing pro coaches to fashion fullbacks out of tight ends or linebackers or big halfbacks. NFL rules encourage more passing, less running. As such, spread offenses have gained favor. Special teams, usually among a fullback’s chores, are continually marginalized.

Fullbacks simply aren’t as relevant anymore.

“You’ve got to understand it’s a passing league,” Leach said. “They’re not using hard-nosed fullbacks like they used to.”

Days of the fullback being a three-down offensive component appear over.

“Will it come back? I don’t think it will,” Parcells said. “It’s almost extinct. It’s nothing like it used to be. It’s a different day and time.”

Salaries, snaps falling

Few positions in any sport evoke visions of toughness like the fullback.

It’s a manifestation of the rugged American man, the thankless servant who dishes out punishment and absorbs his share for the cause.

“The pure fullback position is easily the most selfless, most self-sacrificing position on the field,” said player agent Brett Tessler, who represented former Bills fullback Corey McIntyre and handled marketing for Alstott. “It’s clearly a position that doesn’t get a lot of glory.

“It’s become a faceless position. Hard-core football fans know them, but the average fan doesn’t.”

The value of contemporary NFL fullbacks easily is found by looking at their salaries. The average fullback makes about $1 million a year, less than kickers and punters and about the same as the best long-snappers.

Lawrence Vickers played all 16 games for the Dallas Cowboys last year, but they cut him when they decided to forgo fullbacks completely. Vickers still is out of work.

Michael Robinson went to the Pro Bowl for the Seattle Seahawks two seasons ago. They cut him because he was going to make a $2.5 million base salary this year. He’s unemployed.

Respected fullback Greg Jones made $3.5 million for the Jacksonville Jaguars last year. The Jaguars didn’t bother trying to re-sign him. The Houston Texans got Jones for $1 million.

McIntyre, a special-teams captain for Buffalo last year, is unsigned. He’d probably jump at the minimum salary of $840,000 for a player in his eighth season. Summers makes $480,000, the minimum for a first-year player.

“When I got into this business in the mid-’90s,” Tessler said, “every team had a fullback and maybe another guy you could stick back there. Teams would carry two, maybe three tight ends. Now teams carry four or five tight ends.

“Fullback jobs aren’t available like they used to be.”

Salaries are commensurate with the workload. Snap counts, like fullback bank accounts, are dwindling.

Forty-nine games have been played, yet only eight fullbacks have recorded a rushing attempt and 20 have caught a pass. Summers has no carries and two catches for 49 yards.

Through the first three weeks,’s snap-count data showed six teams – Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns, Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Philadelphia Eagles, St. Louis Rams – still hadn’t used a fullback on a single offensive play.

The Cincinnati Bengals had used a fullback on 5 percent of their snaps, and three of those 10 plays were handled by defensive tackle Domata Peko.

Just two fullbacks, meanwhile, played more than half his team’s offensive snaps. Bruce Miller played 53 percent for the San Francisco 49ers. Mike Tolbert played 51 percent for the Carolina Panthers.

No fullback played more than half his team’s snaps in Week Three.

The past two years for Buffalo, McIntyre played 10 percent of the offensive snaps for previous coach Chan Gailey. Defensive tackle Kyle Williams saw some goal-line snaps at fullback.

Summers played zero offensive snaps on opening day against the New England Patriots, 22 plays against the Panthers and zero plays last week against the New York Jets.

One might assume teams that still use fullbacks rank highly in run offense.

There doesn’t appear to be much correlation.

The Oakland Raiders rank third in rushing yards and second in yards per carry. They’ve used lead fullback (although he’s really more of a halfback) Marcell Reece on 48 percent of their snaps and backup fullback Jamize Olawale on 13 percent.

But the Eagles, with zero fullback snaps, lead the NFL in rushing yards per game and average yards per carry. NFL Players Association records list James Casey as the highest-paid fullback, but the Eagles consider him a tight end.

The Seahawks’ lead fullback is on the field just 3 percent of the time, and they rank eighth in rushing yards.

The Packers use lead fullback John Kuhn 9 percent of the time yet rank 10th in rushing yards and fourth in yards per carry. The Cowboys have zero fullback snaps and rank 10th in yards per carry.

Madden creation

Bills coach Doug Marrone admitted this week he and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett haven’t done enough to get Summers involved.

Marrone harbors seemingly unusual thoughts about the future of the NFL fullback. Marrone, unlike Parcells and many others, does not necessarily see a vestigial position but one that can regenerate itself given the proper circumstances.

That rebirth, however, would rely on one very difficult task: finding the right player.

“I thought long and hard about this for years now,” Marrone said. “It’s not something that’s just come up.

“What I’m trying to find – if it’s out there – is this hybrid-type of player that can play in the backfield.”

Marrone has ideal vital statistics in mind for this heretofore mythical, new-age fullback: height, weight, 40-yard-dash speed, etc. Marrone has held discussions with Bills General Manager Doug Whaley and Buddy Nix about this model candidate.

“Someone that can play back there and is good enough to be a lead blocker,” Marrone said. “Someone that can catch the ball extremely well out of the backfield. Someone that may be able to pull or trap out of the backfield. But also someone that can play maybe off the line, an F-tight end, not necessarily on the line, where you can strategically get him” in space “and then getting four full phases of special teams.”

But is this dream concoction an urban legend, more likely to be dreamt up on a Madden video game?

This player must have the proper mobility to operate in the open field, hands to catch, physical strength to block and compact size for maximum pad level at the point of attack.

“When you talk about hybrids,” Marrone said, “you say to yourself, ‘What is the dominant trait?’ It’s hard to find that dominant trait because if he’s a big, bruising blocker, then how is he going to be the player you’re looking for on the perimeter?”

That fullback, if he isn’t a figment of a hopeful coach’s imagination, almost certainly would need to be converted from some other position out of college and developed over time.

Even then, Marrone mused, it would be difficult to cultivate such a player. Marrone called that “the tough part” of a process that already sounded quixotic.

“You’re going to need time and patience to develop it,” Marrone said. “The question is where do you strategically want to put that in? Where do you want that development to take place? Because in the offseason you can get caught a little bit, and then you’re going to have to make a decision in training camp where that player stands.”

And then your project gets cut and another team picks him up.

So perhaps the best way to approach Marrone’s fullback-in-training concept would be to stash him on the practice squad and coach him up in secret, almost like a top-secret experiment.

Pipeline empty

Fullbacks began to wane a couple of decades ago not only because the NFL gravitated toward the passing game, but also because colleges stopped producing them.

The iconic I formations of the Big Ten, veer offenses and wishbone backfields in Oklahoma and Texas began to vanish.

“When 95 percent of the schools producing prospects aren’t using a fullback,” Parcells said, “you’re not going to have any fullbacks. You can take only what you’re being sent.

“The game is increasingly being played more and more in space, more spread. The two-back offense pretty much is a thing of the past. The majority of the teams are running one-back a majority of the time.”

The only schools still relying on traditional fullbacks are the service academies and Georgia Tech, which uses the flexbone formation head coach Paul Johnson deployed at Navy.

“Not too many true, true fullbacks anymore,” said Summers, who played tailback at UNLV. “You see a lot of tailbacks converted to fullback. That gives the position a little more athleticism, but there are some teams that don’t carry them at all.”

A true fullback hasn’t been drafted earlier than the third round since 1999, when the Miami Dolphins took Rob Konrad out of Syracuse.

A true fullback hasn’t been drafted earlier than the fourth round in nine years. The San Diego Chargers drafted Jacob Hester in the third round four years ago, but he played tailback at Louisiana State. Hester’s out of the league already.

“Once you get to this level,” Leach said, “coaches really don’t have time to develop fullbacks.”

Many teams spackle the “fullback” position with whatever’s on hand.

Jets coach Rex Ryan has referred to tight end Konrad Reuland as a “garbage man” because he can fill in at fullback, too.

“In some cases, they’re primarily receivers,” Parcells said. “On other teams, they serve a fullback-combination role. That tight end position – not the type of tight end you think of in a traditional run, block and catch way – will settle into the backfield and teams will run their plays from there.

“That kind of player kind of has taken the fullback position, and a lot of the colleges use that kind of guy. Before, they’d use a fullback.”

As Leach previously noted, fullbacks are clinging for dear life in the NFL.

After this afternoon’s game, he and Summers will meet on the field and wish each other well in hopes of prolonging a fading fraternity that includes many legends but increasingly fewer contemporaries.

Fullbacks still can be useful, though.

“Whether you have one on your roster or use an offensive lineman or a tight end or a tailback,” Leach said, “there are going to be games you’re going to need a fullback. There are times when you need to put a lead blocker in front of your running back to get the tough yards.”

They are critical to many four-minute offenses. With a late lead and clock management at a premium, a fullback plows forth, blasting holes and protecting the man behind him.

At the goal line or on third down and short still can be a fullback’s time to shine on many teams.

“There’s not really a position for a fullback,” Summers said, “but when it’s time to run the ball on third and 1 or 2, I think the fullback still is very much needed to get downhill and clean things out.”

But the NFL doesn’t want to be about helmet-thumping as much anymore, not with all the lawsuits and media scrutiny about concussions and the aftermath of brain trauma.

The NFL wants a passing league dominated by quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning and Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers and Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson and Tom Brady.

That means more spread formations, one-back sets and more tight ends breaking up the seam.

That means less Craig “Ironhead” Heyward or Christian Okoye blasting through the two-hole or Keith Byars catching a pass in the flat.

“Maybe those days are gone, but it could come back again,” Leach said. “Fullbacks can reinvent themselves, do more things, run, catch out of the backfield.

“If they can do that, there always will be a place for the fullback.”