Why you should care
Spread offenses and advanced metrics have changed the way football is played at every level.
Which position epitomizes football? The answer most certainly depends on an individual’s age and personal experience playing the game or watching from afar, but a few positions stick out more than others. Middle linebacker, what with the Ray Lewises, Dick Butkuses, Chuck Bednariks and other aptly named human brick walls, surely embodies the gridiron soul. Quarterback, of course, but those guys get enough of the glory.
When I think “football,” I think of the players who do the dirty work — who clear the way for their more famous backfield mates and love the feel of dirt on their knuckles because the low man always wins. I’m talking fullbacks, particularly the grittiest, most agile neck roll–wearing human wrecking ball that there ever was and ever will be: Mike Alstott.
— Faux NFL Network™ (@FauxNFLnetwork) February 17, 2019
In 12 NFL seasons with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the “A-Train” was a six-time Pro Bowler and helped win Super Bowl XXXVII in 2002. At an imposing 250 pounds, Alstott was, in many ways, a typical fullback: an excellent blocker who cleared running paths for the more elusive Warrick Dunn. But Alstott was even more of a problem with the ball in his hands.
Purdue University’s all-time leader in rushing yards (3,635 yards) and rushing touchdowns (39), Alstott continued that success at the pro level. In 158 games across 11 seasons, he scored 71 touchdowns and totaled 7,372 yards on 1,664 touches. That 4.4 yards per touch average is on par with most running backs in today’s game. As seen in the video above, Alstott was known for barreling over would-be tacklers, but his elite athleticism enabled him to break off long, untouched runs. He was NFL Blitz in the flesh. He was football.
Sadly, the position that Alstott made cool is now endangered. Only 16 percent of NFL teams carried a fullback on the roster last season, down from 48 percent in 2008. Fewer prep fullbacks are earning scholarships, and fewer college stars are getting NFL Combine invites. The one fullback who did attend the 2019 Combine — Texas A&M’s Cullen Gillaspia — wasn’t drafted until the seventh round. Most telling, though:
Only four high school fullbacks are listed in the entire 247Sports database for the 2020 class.
No fullbacks are listed on the Rivals Top 100 or ESPN Top 300 for the classes 2020 or 2021. Of the four fullbacks on 247Sports, all are two-star (out of five) recruits and only one — Brian Hibbard of Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana — has signed to play college football next season. Hibbard will join the Rice Owls in the mid-major Conference USA next season. Comparatively, the highest-rated long-snapper has a scholarship to Notre Dame.
On ESPN, Hibbard’s position is listed as Athlete — aka several or to be determined. On Rivals, he’s listed as a center. As modern football evolves into a game that relies heavily on passing and misdirection, there’s little use for fullbacks who clear running paths and pick up small chunks of yardage per carry. Besides the rare primary rushing fullbacks like Alstott, the position typically only touches the ball on short-yard situations. Now, modern analytics tells coaches that it’s best to pass in those situations. The result? An impending fullback extinction from Pop Warner to the pros and increasing uncertainty for the position’s remaining holdouts, who, depending on the website, may wonder where they fit in. For that, they can thank college football.
Developed in the 1920s, the spread only recently gained widespread acceptance thanks to high-octane offenses across college football, particularly in the Big 12 and conferences across the West Coast. The level of play is still highly competitive, but in order to compete for championships with bigger, stronger athletes from the SEC and Big Ten, coaches gravitated to an offense that creates diverse scoring opportunities while not depending on winning the battle of the trenches.
The spread enables smaller teams to compete with the big boys “by bypassing the interior line battle,” says NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah. “It gets the ball in the skill guys’ hands quickly.” When an offense moves at breakneck speed and covers more ground, even the fiercest defenses wear down.
That philosophy is exactly why the spread has quickly taken over high school football too. Manny Douglas, head coach of the Narbonne Gauchos, implemented the spread in Los Angeles in 2004 because his linemen were so undersized. Rather than sending a fullback up the middle, Douglas used bubble screens and short slant passes as surrogate run plays. He also stopped caring about size. “I never look at size,” Douglas says. “If a kid can play, I can put him in position to succeed.”
According to Pac-12 analyst Yogi Roth, there’s another thread that helps explain the spread prep takeover. “A key aspect of high school football and the summer camp circuit is preparing kids for the next level,” says Roth. “It’s a disservice not to teach them the concepts that they’ll be using in college.”
Meanwhile, that line of thinking is also driving the spread of … the spread … in the NFL. Professional coaches will tell you that the quality of linemen has deteriorated thanks to the collegiate spread emphasis. Plus, there are more lightning-quick fast-twitch athletes coming out of college than ever before. In past eras, many of these players — from Kansas City’s Tyreek Hill to Chicago’s Tarik Cohen — would have been deemed too small to compete. Now they excel in the spread. So NFL teams have embraced the concepts too. Some, like the Arizona Cardinals with new head coach Kliff Kingsbury, are even hiring straight from the college ranks.
By opening up the field, NFL clubs have realized that they can win with younger, inexpensive talent that has been groomed to play this way since middle school. “These fast, freak athletes who can line up all over the field have really gained value,” says former NFL wideout turned CBS analyst Nate Burleson. “College football is full of dynamic athletes who just need a shot.”
And while all of this has led to electrifying offenses and annual record-breaking passing performances, arguably the most football of all football men — the fullback — is obsolete. The most athletic gridiron grinders will still find a way to impact the game, likely as tight ends or utility H-backs who can run, catch and block, but the position is all but dead.
There will never be another Mike Alstott. That alone is enough to halt this revolution.