The Evolution of Fullback in Green Bay & the NFL

One of the most interesting positions in football history

Packers Fullback Jim Taylor circa 1965 (YouTube/Ian Ward)

Okay, this one is for the real American Football enthusiasts.

In some ways, this story is in itself the story of the evolution of professional football.

The fullback position has mutated greatly over the decades. It has gone from featuring many of the biggest stars in the league to being a host of forgotten men. Very few positions in professional sports have evolved so drastically over the years as fullback in the NFL.

In the modern day NFL they’re often hardworking, unsung heroes of an offense — if they’re even there at all. It wasn’t always this way. Every team used to feature at least one prominent fullback. The Packers’ history at the fullback position is incredibly vast. To see it laid out visually, click here.

Fullback has been a unique position in the NFL for the last two decades in that they’re usually replaceable almost every season, until a team gets a really good one. Then that team typically wants to keep that fullback for a decade. Their impact grows exponentially with every year as their knowledge of the offense continues to expand. Oftentimes a true quality fullback isn’t appreciated until they’re gone.

Of course, this isn’t a blanket statement for the position all-time.

In the 1920s the game of professional football was nearly unrecognizable to the game of today. In those foundational years halfbacks (or tailbacks) were, for the most part, the game’s premier scorers, although there was very little scoring.

We should mention Ernie Nevers, who was the first star fullback in NFL history. He played for the Duluth Eskimos and the Chicago Cardinals from 1926-1931 and was named First Team All-Pro each season.

However the Packers mirrored the larger trend around the league as Verne Lewellen, a halfback, was their premier runner in those early years. League-wide, halfbacks didn’t hold this title as top scorers for long though.

Enter: Depression Era football

Despite swirling financial hardships, it was in the 1930s that American football at least began to resemble the game we know today. The NFL’s earliest stars, when stats were kept and the forward pass began to be used with somewhat regularity at least, were fullbacks. The game was still brutal and raw, but it had began to challenge college football in popularity in some regions.

It was in 1932 that the NFL began recording stats and 1933 that official title games were held. With each passing year in the 1930s teams began to pass more, led by the Green Bay Packers, mind you.

That said, in many ways you need to look at the history of the Packers and the Chicago Bears to tell the full story, and evolution, of professional football.

The Packers had halfback Johnny Blood leading the way in the early 1930s and the Bears had the even more popular halfback Red Grange. But as we mentioned, the time of fullbacks was near. Blood’s stardom gave way to the relentless Clarke Hinkle — the Packers’ new fullback. Grange relinquished his ‘best runner in Chicago’ title to fullback Bronko Nagurski.

However it should be noted that Blood and Hinkle were the first truly great halfback-fullback duo (but definitely not the last in Packers history). Blood was the more versatile player, catching passes out of the backfield, but Hinkle was more of the workhorse, straight-ahead runner.

In those days fullbacks weren’t asked to be as multifaceted as halfbacks. However the two positions were more alike than dissimilar.

From 1935-1938 Hinkle was named First Team All-Pro in each season. He helped bring two more World Championships to Green Bay and retired as the NFL’s all-time rushing leader. The other fullback on the NFL’s 1930s All-Decade Team was legendary Chicago Bear Nagurski. He was also a four-time First Team All-Pro, but was a three time World Champion. Both led the NFL in rushing touchdowns in a single-season, too.

They were equal and opposite forces as Green Bay became “Titletown USA” and the Bears became known as the “Monsters of the Midway.”

Fullbacks in these days weren’t much larger than other runners, but also weren’t expected to catch many passes. Their job was pretty straight forward.

In the 1930s Hinkle and Nagurski were the two best runners in the NFL. The era of fullbacks was fully established by the late 1930s. It seemed as though the future of football was to be built around the fullback position. Like Hinkle, Nagurski caught very few passes but had numerous seasons with 120+ carries (which was a boatload for that era).

In 1939, the Packers featured a fullback by the name of Ed Jankowski. He didn’t have a long career, but he was named to a Pro Bowl and won a World Championship.

In the 1940s the Packers put together a backfield combination that would be a foreshadowing of how the team would dominate in the Lombardi Era. We are talking about the combination of halfback Tony Canadeo and fullback Ted Fritsch.

Not to be outdone, the Bears featured a similar combination in halfback George McAfee and fullback Bill Osmanski. Both of those men were on the NFL’s 1940 All-Decade Team.

Green Bay’s best fullback of the 1940s, Fritsch, wasn’t awarded to that illustrious team, but he maybe should have been. Canadeo has his #3 retired at Lambeau Field for his amazing versatility, but Fritsch actually scored one more career touchdown from scrimmage. Fritsch also led the NFL in rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns in 1946 (something Candeo never did). Canadeo could run, catch or pass to get the Packers down the field, but when you got near that goal line — it was Fritsch time, baby.

The usage of Fritsch was, in a small way, a foreshadowing of the way the fullback would be used in future decades in the NFL (and much of the Super Bowl Era). For his efforts, Fritsch was named First Team All-Pro in 1946.

As you probably already know, Canadeo and Fritsch also wouldn’t be the last great halfback and fullback combination in Packers history.

It was in the 1940s that the “T-formation” was introduced and it changed the way the game would be played. This formation allowed a fullback to be a more logical lead blocker for the halfback in many situations. But still, this tendency wasn’t fully realized league-wide until the mid-1960s.

As the 1940s unfolded these two, Canadeo and Fritsch, dominated and helped lead the Packers to a World Championship. However they were aided by the incomparable end Don Hutson as the NFL became more and more of a passing game. Arnie Herber and Cecil Isbell were his two best quarterbacks as they rewrote the record books.

Despite this aerial evolution of the game, Pat Harder and Marion Motley found a way to star as fullbacks in the 1940s elsewhere in the NFL. That position was arguably stronger than halfback, league wide, from the mid-1930s through the 1940s.

Motley is one of the most underrated superstars in professional football history, although from 1946-1949 he was Cleveland’s fullback when they were dominating the AAFC before joining the NFL in 1950. All Motley did in his first year in the NFL was lead the league in rushing. Harder went on to star for the Detroit Lions in the early 1950s and we don’t really know why he isn’t in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Still, in 1949 running back Steve Van Buren led the NFL in rushing. However his position wouldn’t enjoy such top-end success for quite some time after his great ’49 season.

The 1950s: The Era of Fullback Domination

This decade introduced the world to fullbacks Jim Brown and Jim Taylor.  It also featured Joe Perry, Rick Casares and Alan Ameche (Ameche, like Pat Harder were both former Badger greats). The most revered halfback from that era was Frank Gifford. Sure, his legend is large, but as a whole his position couldn’t live up to the fullbacks of the day.

It was in the 1950s that the fullback position began its firm grip on dominating the league. Halfbacks were essentially second-thought offensive weapons in this decade. And it was Ameche who scored the overtime, game-winning touchdown in “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” His Baltimore Colts beat the New York Giants for the NFL Championship. Some say it was the game that brought the NFL to, or even past, college football in popularity.

Zeroing in on the Packers in the ’50s doesn’t yield much to talk about when it comes to fullback, besides Taylor making his debut that is. However Green Bay’s most productive runner of the decade was a fullback — Howie Ferguson. The Packers are usually on-par with the league-wide trends at fullback. His 1956 season shouldn’t be forgotten as he put up 1,012 yards from scrimmage and was named to the Pro Bowl.

The Bears kept the fullback tradition very much alive and well with Rick Caseras leading the team to a World Championship while being named to five straight Pro Bowl squads to begin his career. He led the NFL in rushing once and was a part of a long line of fullbacks dominating the NFL (we’ll illustrate that below). His legend isn’t large enough around the Midwest for our liking.

The 1960s, when professional football definitively became America’s favorite sport, the Packers boasted the best backfield in the NFL.

Their backfield featured three future Hall of Fame inductees in quarterback Bart Starr, halfback Paul Hornung and fullback Jim Taylor.

That combination of halfback Hornung and fullback Taylor was the next great halfback-fullback duo in Green Bay. They carried on that legacy of Blood/Hinkle and Canadeo/Fritsch. Although Hornung and Taylor would, emphatically, be the best in team history and still are today by a wide margin.

It’s interesting to look back at how often having a rushing duo of a halfback and fullback did so much for an offense in the NFL’s first 50 years. Whereas today when it’s usually a rushing halfback and (at best) a blocking fullback that certainly don’t get equal opportunities or praise.

Despite Paul Hornung’s hero status as the “Golden Boy” All-American halfback, Jim Taylor became the Packers’ all-time rushing champion (a record he’d hold for over 40 years). Together Taylor and Hornung helped lead the Packers to four World Championships.

Taylor was as hard-nosed a runner as you could imagine. If you haven’t seen his running style, you should check this out. For his efforts he was named First Team All-Pro and league MVP, but he still wasn’t even the best fullback in the league in those days.

We figured we should quickly mention Cookie Gilchrist, the greatest fullback to play in the AFL (also in the 1960s). No, he didn’t play in the NFL, but he sure was great. But he wasn’t as great as Taylor or the man we’re about to talk about.

The GOAT

The greatest running back of all-time (with sincere respect to Barry Sanders and Walter Payton) was actually a fullback. Jim Brown was that fullback. He was the first truly iconic superstar in the days of televised football, along with quarterback Johnny Unitas. Call him a running back, a fullback, a runner, it doesn’t matter. No one ran the ball like him. But he was technically a fullback, so we should honor that history.

His highlights show a stronger, faster, smarter athlete simply dominating his competition. Brown ran with fearlessness, but surprising grace despite his position. For people that simply can’t believe that someone that played so long ago can be the best ever, you have to watch him run.

If you’d prefer to see our statistical evidence that shows that Brown was the most dominant runner this league has ever seen, we have you covered right here.

However the dominance of the fullback position went far beyond Brown and spanned well into the 1960s.

From 1950-1965 a fullback led the NFL in rushing every season. This is, without a doubt, the most interesting stat we found when researching the fullback position.

It should be mentioned that it was Brown that led every season in rushing from 1957-1965, except for when Jim Taylor led the league in 1962. If you watched Brown’s highlights then you understand how impressive it was for Taylor to accomplish that feat.

It took Brown’s retirement for a halfback to lead the NFL in rushing for the first time since 1949. It was Gale Sayers in 1966 that led the NFL in rushing. You could say that Sayers helped revolutionize the NFL.

Only one time since 1965 has a fullback led the NFL in rushing. That was the 253 pound “Nigerian Nightmare” Christian Okoye in 1989. That was the only season in which Okoye was a highly-utilized featured runner. It was 24 years between Jim Brown and Okoye leading the league in rushing. It’s been 30 years since Okoye assaulted the NFL.

After Brown retired in 1965, the next runner that was named league MVP was a halfback (or running back). Washington’s Larry Brown took home the prestigious award in 1972.

In the first ten years that the AP MVP Award was given out (1957-1966), a runner won the award five times. Quarterbacks won the other five awards. Of the five times a runner won it, four times it was a fullback (Jim Brown and Jim Taylor). Just once it was a running back (Paul Hornung).

However Hornung was a harbinger of what was to come.

The next 13 times a runner has won the award, spanning the next 50 years in the NFL, it was a running back each and every time. Never again has a fullback won the AP MVP Award. That trend began and ended with Brown and Taylor dominating the NFL in the late-1950s until the mid-1960s.

It’s unlikely a fullback will ever win a major NFL award again.

Fullbacks in the Super Bowl Era

In the 1960s the Bears finally began to show a blueprint of what the halfback-fullback relationship would become in the NFL for years to come. Gale Sayers was an elite running back that owed some of his success to blocking fullback Brian Piccolo. They have, perhaps, the most famous running back and fullback relationship in NFL history (check out the film Brian’s Song or even the remake).

Piccolo scored just five touchdowns in his tragically-short NFL career. Sayers scored five touchdowns in one game against San Francisco as a rookie and was named First Team All-Pro five times in each of his five healthy seasons.

For the first time the world saw how these two positions could really vary from one another. Their requirements of their two positions couldn’t have been more different for the first time in NFL history. The NFL often evolves toward specialization, the fullback is a prime example of that.

The classic way to think of a fullback in the NFL is him leading the running back through the hole in the I-formation, or picking up blitzing linebackers in pass blocking. Again, the genesis of this identity of the position was born in the 1960s.

But what accelerated this change?

When Gale Sayers got hurt, in his first season without Piccolo as his lead blocker, did General Managers collectively think “we need to protect our investments better.” Did that influence the influx of blocking-first fullbacks that we saw for the next 50 years? It’s a fascinating question to ask, as if they all said, less direct hits on our running backs forevermore.

There’s no doubt that this era was transcendent for fullbacks.

An interesting fact about this position is that the first rushing touchdown in Super Bowl history was by a fullback (Jim Taylor). But once Taylor left Green Bay, it would be up to another fullback to step up.

Although his career was short-lived, Chuck Mercein was instrumental in Green Bay winning the Ice Bowl (and getting them to Super Bowl II). His abilities were showcased in that final game-winning drive. It showed the value of the position in the most clutch of moments in NFL history.

However as the Super Bowl Era began to unfold fullbacks were still featured, but less often with each passing year.

This is because of the position that took over running the ball in the NFL. You could call the 1970s the era of the dominant running back. The league was led by O.J. Simpson, Earl Campbell and Walter Payton. No other position had such star power at that time.

Many teams in this decade transitioned into using the “Piccolo mold” for their fullbacks.

Not Green Bay though. The Packers didn’t give up on the trend of pounding the rock with the fullback. From 1971-1977 the Packers relied on John Brockington to be their featured runner, despite his position. As much of the league leaned more toward featuring running backs the Packers honored their expansive fullback history.

Brockington was named First Team All-Pro as a rookie and put up over 1,100 yards from scrimmage in each of his first four seasons. Had he been able to stay healthy he’d be even more of a household name in Wisconsin. The last few years of his career couldn’t live up to his first four. Still, he’s fondly remembered as a bruising runner and as the last true featured fullback in Packers history.

In 1972 the Packers again boasted a respectable running back-fullback duo as MacArthur Lane also put up 1,106 yards from scrimmage as the team’s running back. However that duo would be incredibly short-lived. It would be the last time the Packers had a running back and fullback each top 1,000 yards in the same season.

It was in the early 1970s that we saw the last truly great featured fullbacks in Larry Csonka and Franco Harris. Their legends are safe in football history.

Csonka scored 68 touchdowns in his career, was named First Team All-Pro twice, won two Super Bowls and was part of the ’72 Dolphin’s undefeated season. In some ways, he, along with Harris, were the last gasp of the featured rushing fullback. Harris scored 100 touchdowns and won four Super Bowls along the way. Not too bad, huh?

Interestingly, Rocky Bleier was also in that backfield and although he was listed as a running back, he had ample blocking duties. In fact, some people would consider him to be the fullback between the two men at times.

The history of this position is messy to say the least.

Robert Newhouse and Timmy Newsome on the Dallas Cowboys both have to be mentioned when talking the history of fullbacks in the NFL. Together they gave the ‘Boys ongoing consistency at the fullback position.

Newsome had, perhaps, the largest thighs in NFL history for a ball carrier. That is his claim to fame.

He led the Cowboys in rushing in 1975 (930 yards) and was dubbed by some “The Human Bowling Ball.” After Newhouse came Timmy Newsome, as they shared fullback duties for four years in the early 1980s before Newsome made the position his own. Newhouse scored 36 touchdowns and Newsome held his own with 30.

In the late 1970s the Packers featured fullback Barty Smith in their backfield, too. He was never flashy, but was consistent for Green Bay.

The Cowboys, along with the Packers and Bears, have chiefly shaped the history of the fullback position above most others. But there’d be few star fullbacks over the next forty years of NFL football.

So… what happened to the star fullback? Hit Page 2 to see our theory!

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We seek to bring more context to, and share interesting stores about, the history of the Green Bay Packers and the NFL as a whole. Clickbait be damned. "We" are Daniel and David Zillmer; hit the about or contact to learn more.

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