But even though he doesn't run much anymore, the fullback is still one of the most important pieces of the I-formation. If he isn't able to effectively use that isolation block on the middle linebacker, the play won't work.
The best game I've ever seen by a blocking fullback was Cory Schlesinger's performance against the Bears on October 20, 2002. The Lions had 39 runs for 192 yards, and nearly all of them were on I-formation runs with Cory Schlesinger providing the lead block on Brian Urlacher (James Stewart got most of the carries). When a fullback dominates a middle linebacker as completely as Schlesinger dominated Urlacher that day, an I-formation offense is nearly impossible to stop.
Unfortunately, football statistics are greatly lacking in their assessment of which fullbacks do the best job of providing lead blocks for their running backs. About the best thing we can do is examine each running back's I-formation splits and infer what those splits tell us about the fullbacks who block for them. Stats Inc. keeps track of how running backs do in the I-formation, although they don't tell you the context of those carries.
Here are the leaders in a number of I-formation categories, starting with total carries:
|Shaun Alexander||193||Mack Strong|
|Domanick Davis||145||Moran Norris|
|Rudi Johnson||128||Jeremi Johnson|
|Willis McGahee||127||Daimon Shelton|
|Jamal Lewis||126||Alan Ricard|
|Kevan Barlow||123||Fred Beasley|
|LaDainian Tomlinson||109||Lorenzo Neal|
|Kevin Jones||104||Cory Schlesinger|
Even though the Texans use the three-receiver set as their base offense - Andre Johnson, Corey Bradford, and Jabar Gaffney are all starters - Norris is the prototypical I-formation fullback. Last year he had one carry and four receptions, which sounds like no contribution at all until you realize how often the Texans counted on the 254-pounder to lead their running game.
Warrick Dunn's 126 carries in the I-formation were a lot, especially when you consider that T.J. Duckett had another 67. But when we look at the top running backs in terms of their yards per attempt in the I-formation, we see some interesting things, especially about the Falcons:
Duckett was No. 1 in the league in yards per attempt in the I, and it's striking to compare the numbers of Dunn and Duckett when they're in the I and when they're not in the I. Duckett averages 5.5 yards a carry in the I and 3.8 yards a carry when he's not in the I. Dunn averages 4.3 yards a carry in the I and 4.1 yards a carry when he's not in the I. That demonstrates that Duckett thrives when he's running straight ahead into a pile, but is less effective when there's more open space around the backfield. Duckett never once got stuffed for no gain or a loss on his 67 carries in the I-formation.
Two of the top five running backs in yards per carry are Broncos running behind Patrick Hape or Kyle Johnson. For some odd reason Hape is listed as a tight end, and the TV announcers dutifully call him a tight end, but when you watch the Broncos you see that he actually plays fullback. He clearly does a good job of it, although if you don't already know that the Broncos do a good job of run blocking, this probably isn't the right website for you.
Next let's look at touchdowns in the I-formation:
Priest Holmes only took a handoff in the I-formation 75 times in his injury-shortened 2004 season, and yet he scored 14 times. Obviously, the Chiefs love using the I in goal-line situations, and Tony Richardson does a great job of leading Holmes and his backups into the end zone. On the opposite end, Marshall Faulk had 74 carries in the I and didn't score on any of them. Mike Martz generally doesn't like the I in goal-line situations, subscribing to the theory that it's better to spread out opposing defenses with an extra receiver in the red zone than to have them all crowding the middle of the field when a fullback is in.
Because the point of plays like I right 32 iso is to get four yards when the team needs four yards, if I had to choose one statistic to use to judge a fullback's effectiveness, it would be the percent of plays on which his running back got a first down from the I-formation. So let's look at that:
Sowell and Richardson have made plenty of All Pro teams, so it's no surprise to see them on the top of the list. Perhaps Zach Crockett, James Mungro, and Mike Karney deserve more credit for the roles they play.
The I-formation has been the dominant offensive formation of the post-merger era, but it's far from universal. Don Coryell had success with the I early in his coaching career but later moved away from it with his high-scoring San Diego Chargers teams. Joe Gibbs, who played in college for Coryell at San Diego State, followed his mentor's lead and eschewed the fullback for an H-back who was more a threat as a receiver but not as useful as a straight-ahead blocker. Last year, Gibbs' Redskins rarely ran out of the I, and two of the other teams that most scrupulously avoided the I were run by Gibbs disciples: The Panthers with Dan Henning as offensive coordinator and the Vikings with Mike Tice as head coach and Scott Linehan as offensive coordinator. Most teams, even teams that prefer single-back sets like the Colts, still keep a full slate of I-formation plays in the playbook.
Although the offensive innovators (and the rule-makers) have made the NFL a more pass-happy league in recent years, the I isn't going anywhere. Fullbacks of today aren't as important to their teams as they were 30 years ago, but when a team needs a couple of yards, there's no better way to get them than having a lead-blocking fullback isolated on the middle linebacker.
Copyright 2005 Michael David Smith and Football Outsiders, reprinted with permission.