Blocked Out

In today's hotoffenses, the true fullback is a vanishing breed, but Lorenzo Neal and a fewother stalwarts carry on

WHEN THE Chargersgo to a spread formation, veteran fullback Lorenzo Neal often can be seenstanding on the sideline with his hands on his hips and a look of irritation onhis face. The frustration in those situations stems from San Diego's use of atight end to do the job for which Neal has been trained: clearing a patch forAll-Pro running back LaDainian Tomlinson. "I'm not going to lie. I dobecome perturbed when I see a tight end running lead draw for us," Neal, a15-year veteran, said last week. "It's not to disrespect any of thecoaches, but I'm ticked when I see a tight end doing plays that are made forfullbacks."

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

The more successGibbs had, the more other teams, including those at the college level, adoptedvariations of his blueprint. The result has been a gradual decline in thenumber of traditional blocking fullbacks at the game's highest level. Thisseason only two NFL teams, the Browns and the Panthers, have started a truefullback in every game; the Bills, Chiefs, Colts, Lions and Rams have yet tostart a traditional fullback.

"The reason youdon't see as many of the old-school fullbacks is that there aren't as manybeing trained in college," says Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, who linedup fullback Terrelle Smith on 29 of 57 offensive plays last Sunday. "Moreteams are running spread offenses in college, so there's less importance beingplaced on the fullback. Spread offenses allow you to create mismatches. Thefullback of old is limited in those situations because [he is] required to havesome ability to win one-on-one pass situations. You would see that more from atight end."

If the value of aposition is measured by its prominence in the draft, fullback is near thebottom of the list these days. William Floyd was the last true fullbackselected in the first round—and that was in 1994, by the 49ers. But up throughthe '70s some of the game's top ballcarriers manned the position. Hall ofFamers such as Bronko Nagurski, Marion Motley, Jim Taylor, Jim Brown, LarryCsonka and John Riggins had the ability to run, catch and block, that last dutyhaving the lowest priority.

As offensesevolved, the fullback slipped more and more into the role that Neal knows well:Rushing and pass-catching skills were secondary to blocking ability. As oneteam's scout says, fullbacks came to be viewed as guards whose brains had beenknocked out. Their primary assignments were to create holes for tailbacks andto protect the quarterback. Players interested in personal glory need notapply. That was fine with Neal. His name did not appear alongside Tomlinson'satop the rushing list last season, but anyone who watched the Chargersrecognized Neal's importance to Tomlinson's achievement. In fact, it was the10th consecutive season that Neal had cleared a path for a 1,000-yardrusher.

Now even thetraditional blocking fullback is a disappearing breed, as evidenced last weekwhen one of the league's standouts, the Seahawks' Mack Strong, retired becauseof a herniated disc in his neck. As remarkable as Strong's 13-plus seasons withthe same team may have been, consider his career stat line: In 201 games hetotaled 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 plansto walk away when his contract expires after the 2010 season.

In the meantimefullbacks will continue to work in relative anonymity and prove their value bytheir very presence. On Sunday, for instance, the visiting Raiders had cut theSan Diego lead to 21--14 with just over five minutes remaining, and following apass on first down Turner called five consecutive running plays. (He had beenroundly 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 thewin. Who was in there blocking on all five plays? Lorenzo Neal.

"Norv put it inour hands, and that last drive was beautiful," Tomlinson said after the28--14 victory. "I don't know if you could script a better drive in thattough situation."

Spoken like theformer fullback he is.

Trotter's Takes

Redskins safety Sean Taylor is quietly having anoutstanding season. The fourth-year vet (right) had an interception in each ofhis last three games, giving him four for the year, and almost had two more onSunday at Green Bay.... Could this week's trip to play winless Miami be TomBrady's sternest test of the season? Stop laughing. The Pats QB is 2--4lifetime as a starter on the Dolphins' home field and has not had a plusturnover differential in his last three trips to South Florida. His passerrating was below 78.0 in each of those games.... Yes, the Bears are injured ondefense, but they've allowed 149 points through six games—one fewer than theirtotal after 12 last season. Said defensive end Alex Brown after a 34--31 lossto the Vikings that dropped Chicago to 2--4, "If there's a panic buttonanywhere around, we all need to race to it."

PHOTODONALD MIRALLE/GETTY IMAGES (NEAL)UP FRONT Neal (41) leads the way for LT (21) but, as with Strong (inset), gets no glory. PHOTOSTEPHEN DUNN/GETTY IMAGES (STRONG)[See caption above] PHOTOG. FIUME/GETTY IMAGES
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)