Old School Seahawks Keeping The Fullback Alive
By Corbin Smith
During its early years, the National Football League was a run-first, ground-and-pound business. Teams rarely passed the football, which explains why very few quarterbacks threw for big yardage up until the Don Coryell and the San Diego Chargers started changing the game in the late 1970s. It wasn’t uncommon for teams to run the football an excess of 50 times in one game in an attempt to wear down an opponent in a slugfest.
In today’s NFL, the game of football looks dramatically different than it did even 20 years ago. As rule changes and evolution in offensive philosophy took hold in the professional ranks, teams began to seek different types of players to stay competitive in a sport engulfed by transformation. The rise of the spread offense and increased protection for skill players created a monumental shift in how teams drafted and developed players. Speed and overall athleticism became more vital than ever before, causing a shift in how rosters were assembled. Unlike earlier eras in NFL history, teams began carrying more wide receivers and cornerbacks to compensate for pass-heavy schemes. It's no wonder why it's become commonplace to see quarterbacks hit the 4,000 yard mark in a season.
As a result, the fullback position has become obsolete in the modern NFL as we know it. Teams no longer see value in keeping a blocking specialist out of the backfield, and as more and more coaches install their own adaptations of the spread offense, fullbacks edge closer to extinction. Away from using a traditional fullback in a goalline package, very few teams run formations with multiple backs on the field at one time, and this development has led most teams to simply teach a tight end or a defensive lineman to play the position if needed.
For football purists, it’s gut-wrenching to watch a once-glorious position quickly get pushed out of the game. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, fullbacks were a crucial part of most NFL offenses, and they were often employed as offensive weapons rather than simply being an extra blocker in the run game. When the Miami Dolphins went on two win back-to-back Super Bowl championships in 1972 and 1973, gritty fullback Larry Csonka served as the primary battering ram for Miami’s physical run-heavy offense and rushed for over 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons in the early 70’s. While John Riggins saw action as both a tailback and fullback for the Washington Redskins, he saw plenty of carries from the fullback position and finished his career in 1985 with 116 career touchdowns and over 13,000 rushing yards.
In today’s game, players like Csonka and Riggins would have had a hard time finding a job. After Riggins retired, teams slowly started to move away from traditional offensive schemes and became more intrigued by the potential of the spread offense. For those that kept fullbacks, they were no longer considered capable offensive weapons and were simply maintained to open up holes for running backs. Aside from Mike Alstott briefly turning back the clock for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the late 1990’s, very few teams gave fullbacks the opportunity to be featured as play makers offensively. Some players like retired standout Lorenzo Neal managed to throw together long, successful careers primarily as lead blockers, but trying to find long-term work as a fullback became more difficult with each successive season.
Fullbacks have quickly become a dying breed in an ever-changing game, but there are still a few franchises in the league who see value in the position. Among those teams, the Seattle Seahawks have had great success developing fullbacks for nearly three decades and continue to utilize them in Darrell Bevell’s current offensive system. While the team doesn’t give the fullback many opportunities to make plays with the football in his hands, players like Mack Strong, Leonard Weaver, and Michael Robinson have proven to be well-worth keeping on the active roster due to their blocking prowess and special teams capabilities.
When Strong joined the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent prior to the 1993 season, the team was in the midst of several long seasons of offensive ineptitude. The franchise dealt with major roster turnover several times during his playing career, but he stayed in Seattle for his entire 15 year career. During his tenure with the Seahawks, Strong paved the way for Chris Warren, Ricky Watters, and Shaun Alexander to hit the 1,000 yard mark at least one season a piece, and he also showed flashes of being a capable ball carrier. During the 2005 playoffs, he gashed the Redskins for a team playoff record 32 yard run. The record eventually fell, but he was selected All-Pro first team and made his first Pro Bowl following the season.
After a herniated disk forced Strong to retire in 2007, Seattle once again found good fortune when it signed undrafted free agent Leonard Weaver out of Carson-Newman College. Weaver, who played tight end in college, converted to fullback after joining the Seahawks and emerged as Strong’s replacement during the 2007 season. He ran the ball effectively in two seasons as a starter, rushing for 4.4 yards per carry as a member of the Seahawks, but he became best known as a steady receiver out of the backfield. In his first year as a starter, he put up impressive numbers for a modern-day fullback, catching 39 passes for 313 yards.
Weaver ended up signing with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2009 and earned All-Pro recognition and a spot on the NFC Pro Bowl roster. His career came to an abrupt end the following season when he suffered a devastating torn ACL during opening week. Even though his time in Seattle was short-lived, he provided many memorable stiff arms with the football in his hands and continued a long run of impressive fullback play in the Pacific Northwest.
Following Weaver’s departure, Seattle struggled to find a steady presence at fullback during the 2009 season. But when Pete Carroll struck a deal to become the new coach of the Seahawks in 2010, he lured free agent Michael Robinson away from the San Francisco 49ers and installed him as the starter. Previously a quarterback at Penn State, Robinson brought great leadership intangibles with him to Seattle and provided value on special teams along with excellent lead blocking for Marshawn Lynch. He made a critical block on Lynch’s famous “Beast Quake” run against the New Orleans Saints in the 2010 Wild Card round and became an integral part of Seattle’s offensive attack.
Behind the strong blocking of Robinson, Lynch bulldozed his way for over 1,000 yards rushing in each of the past three seasons. As a contributor on special teams, he reached double digit tackles in both 2011 and 2012 and forced a total of four fumbles during that span. He rarely made plays as a runner or receiver, but he did catch 13 passes for 126 yards and two touchdowns en route to being named to his first Pro Bowl in 2012.
After a subpar 2013 season, Robinson was not re-signed following Seattle’s Super Bowl victory this past February and will most likely retire after eight seasons in the NFL. Youngsters Derrick Coleman, Spencer Ware, and Kiero Small will now have the opportunity to compete for a starting spot at fullback and join a long lineage of standouts who have manned the position for the Seahawks. Coleman appeared in 12 games last season and has a slight edge in experience over the other two competitors, but from a talent standpoint, Small should be the favorite entering training camp.
With the value of fullbacks depreciating more each season, teams rarely waste a draft pick on one. Kickers and punters once held that distinction, but it has become more common to see those two positions drafted over a fullback in recent seasons. However, the Seahawks selected the powerful Small out of Arkansas in the seventh round this past May, once again showing that the team holds higher regard for the position than most.
At 5’8 ½, 240 pounds, Small is built like a bowling ball and showed in college that he can blow up opposing linebackers at the point of attack. He claims to have broken 26 opposing face masks during his college career, and as the following highlight shows, he has a penchant for lighting up anything in his path as a blocker. He also has nimble feet for a man of his stature, as he consistently displays the kind of moves typically seen from running backs on game film. With his surprising athletic ability and prior experience as a goalline tailback for the Razorbacks, he could be utilized as a ball carrier more than his predecessors in Seattle.
It’s rare to see a team carry a traditional fullback on the active roster these days, but the Seahawks view the position as greatly beneficial to its offensive scheme and Carroll will proudly oversee an intense training camp competition to replace Robinson. Rather than doing what most other teams are doing and switching a tight end or defensive end to fullback when needed, the team cherishes having a natural fullback like Coleman or Small to generate running room. It’s highly unlikely that the position will ever return to close to its glory days of the 1960’s and 1970’s, but with teams like the Seahawks still prioritizing the fullback, there is a glimmer of hope that it will survive as football continues to transform.