Thursday, May 6, 2010

Why the Fullback Offense needs to stage a return in the NFL.

Over the last decade the NFL offense at large has witnessed a widespread departure from the Fullback Offense.  Passing, wide receivers, shifty running backs, and dual tight ends have replaced a solid offensive tool and the returns on this investment have been streaky, unreliable, and ultimately disappointing, unless you field a Top 3 passer in the League.

As you know from prior posts, I feel that a philosophy of favorable advantages exploited repeatedly is better than relying on breaking off large quantities of performance less percentage of the time.  The same argument was made earlier referencing the importance of scoring in the paint in basketball, especially during the playoffs. (see post Points in the Paint:  Why the Mavericks will never close the deal.)

Mostly, I blame the idiocy of "group think" on the part of team owners and coaches having taken beatings at the arm of Peyton Manning for the better part of 12 years.  By looking deeper, you see that the Colts have not finished in the top half of the league in rushing offense since 2005 and were ranked dead last last year.  Sure, when you have a lights out, perform-under-pressure, guaranteed Hall of Fame quarterback going away from a solid running game can pay dividends, but how often do these gunners come up?  For more on group think, see the Wildcat Formation.  Nothing says strategy like telegraphing your freaking intentions ...  Alas, that is a fight for another blog post.

Draft trends are not solving the problem.  A trend toward drafting linemen earlier and stud quarterbacks more toward the middle (and then "developing" them for 3 years) still doesn't solve the problem as a blocking lineman can only do so much.  Should a highly drafted lineman be expected to pick up a roving linebacker in addition to his man any more than a free-agent blocker?  It's no mystery what hand the quarterback is going to throw with, so stacking a line isn't going to provide any favors, neither is putting your highly paid tailback up the backside to chop one of these ass-hauling 250 bound beasts.  The running back would be better suited as a last resort dump in the flats anyway, but more on that later.

Color me biased.  Let's put it out there right now that I feel like Daryl "Moose" Johnston is one of the most under-appreciated players from the 90's vintage Dallas Cowboys.  There are numerous reasons, but first among them is the fact that he literally put his neck on the line for the team for 10 seasons.

What do I think an NFL fullback should do?  Simply, an NFL fullback is everything you want a middle linebacker to be.  Toughness, brains, hands, and an appreciation for all things football.  Carefully examine that last quality.  Your fullback needs to love football because you will be asking him to do anything an offensive player can do, and he must do it full throttle, hammer down, and savor every minute.

What can your fullback do for you?  (bullets because there is no order)
  • Provide solid back side pass protection, freeing the RB for an option in the flats;
  • Pickup the last block (typically a linebacker on inside running plays, but can also seal OLB's on sweeps and bump outs);
  • Become a second option on quick passes and screens or busted pass plays;
  • Decrease the reliance on pulling linemen;
  • Mix up the offensive set and audibles with pre-play motion;
  • Generally deemphasize the need for positional top talent across the offense.
Given the choice between having a 200 pound RB picking up backside blitzes and mismatches and having a 230 pounder with a taste for contact, is the decision that tough to make?  When you've got a 2 TE set who picks up the linebacker on an inside play?  Why would you run an inside play out of this formation unless you were only looking to pick up 2 yards?  See how it becomes a back door way of telegraphing the play, and of managing yard-gain risk to the opponent's defensive strategists?  The importance of a fullback's utility as a mobile blocker cannot be overstated.  He could go anywhere, and there's no way to defend that except to dedicate an OLB or DE to covering him.  Play action then, pulls a quality defender off of mid-field coverage for hitch and drag routes, or outside protection in the case of a DE.  As an extra offensive weapon to receive on pass plays the FB position gives you another choice in the flats, one of the most error-in-coverage prone areas of the football field.  Uncovered receivers in the flats get first downs on busted plays, not a loss of down caused by throwing the ball away.  While I do favor pulling offensive linemen to get blowout blocks backed by the momentum of a stampeding yak, their movement is slow to develop and adds a knee/ankle joint risk to the equation.  Pulling linemen also telegraph a developing play by drawing d-linemen down the motion of the pull, in addition to backfield penetration caused by the absence of a blocker and rotation into the play by linebackers.  The offensive basket that a FB brings inherently deprives the other team's coordinator from knowing what he's going to do once the play gets going.  When you motion him up to a Wing set will the FB be sealing an end?  Play action release on a 5 yard route?  Releasing into the flats to open up backside option?  Why pay for a double tight end set, when you can get the same thing and more from your FB without having to change personnel?

Finally, and this one gets its own paragraph, a quality fullback deemphasizes the need for positional top talent.  There exists in the game, and in pundit circles, a notion that with so much parity due to free-agency it doesn't really matter how you get it done because everyone's going to have a "superstar advantage" somewhere.  Horse puckey!  What if the superstar advantage is your wide receiver, but your QB is streaky?  Answer, inside pressure and your best DB should take care of that.  What if your advantage is your QB but his receivers can't make tough catches at the sideline?  What if your advantage is a speed-freak, crazy shifty RB with the field vision to move, but the DE's keep outside contain all game?  To have the balance and maximum number of options on the field every play imparts a decisive offensive advantage because if I'm on the ball I have no idea what's coming, even if I know how to defend against it.  Fullbacks expose the opponent D to playing perfect football over a long set list without having the same ability to limit the offensive tendencies based on fielded personnel.

Conclusion.  Whether or not the fullback returns to the league out of necessity or "rediscovery," the early teams to head back to reliance on fielding this under-appreciated position will benefit greatly.  So too will teams who try and force fullbacks like LenDale White and Troy Hambrick into running back positions fail a majority of the time.  The NFL should be played as a game of averages.  Getting that last LB block on a run resulting in an extra yard, or that extra half second for the QB on a pass adds up over a season.  To continue to deny the importance of the fullback only emphasizes that group think trumps will to win, and that coaches and coordinators are overpaid for the results they produce.  If a decade of poor Dallas Cowboy football neatly overlaid with a decade without a fully functional fullback doesn't write the rest of the story, then I don't know what else to say.