Endangered SpeciesJuly 27, 2012
by: CJ Oates
Can you imagine the game without names like Barry Sanders, Walter Payton, and Adrian Peterson? Yeah neither can I, but with the way the game is changing these days, we might not have a history of “dominant” backs like the previous decades. We can blame this on reasons such as change of offense personality and the decline of the fullback.
Thanks to Charles Darwin, we can look at this new phase of football as “evolution by natural selection”. With their role in the game changing from the run-blocking to the pass receiving, it means the body type for the ideal tight end has changed to an over sized wide receiver. This creates matchup problems for defenses. The prominence of dual tight end sets and two TEs who become the focal point of an offense is rapidly rising (thanks to Bill Belichick’s work with Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez last season). If you think that it’s just a one year wonder, look at the 2012 NFL Draft. The Colts spent back-to-back picks on tight ends (Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen) for their new franchise quarterback. If you don’t think a tight end can be a young quarterback’s best friend, ask Cam Newton whose favorite targets in his rookie season were both Jeremy Shockey and Greg Olsen.
For years, there were periods in which only two tight ends dominated as far as receiving threats. In the 1990s, Shannon Sharpe and Ben Coates ran the show. In the 2000s, Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez were the TE kings. As rules changes began, offenses began to transform from being run-first type of operations to the pass happy attacks we see today. The fullback got lost in the shuffle. The fullback’s demise has been as dramatic as the tight end’s rise. Since teams are using the dual tight end sets, that leaves the running back alone in the backfield. If you look at the successful running backs in the league, they normally have an outstanding, unheralded fullback (ie Arian Foster/Vonta Leach).
Personally, as a former running back, it makes my job a little easier when you have guy who is willing to lead block for you. The demise of the fullback does not help the longevity of a running back’s career.
We are in the very early stages of the NFL becoming a tight end-dominated league. Even though the NFL is a copycat league, I believe the league at heart is still based off traditional “it takes a ground game to win a championship” theme. You can’t outscore everyone and sometimes you need to just play “grind and kill the clock”. So backs such as Marshawn Lynch and Ray Rice should have no worries, their teams will lean heavily on the ground game. The added threat of dual tight end sets, gives a team a weapon to capitalize on the seams opened up down the middle by the running game. If any position should be worried it needs to be the slot receiver. With the re-emergence of the tight end position to prominence in the NFL, many tight ends have every chance to fight for playing time and become the “next big thing”.