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A farewell to fullbacks

The Baltimore Sun

Mike Alstott made it official yesterday. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers fullback retired. It was pretty much a foregone conclusion. Alstott had spent this entire season on injured reserve and had only 81 touches in the 2006 season. But with Alstott leaving the NFL stage, we are seeing perhaps the last of a breed: the fullback who was truly an offensive weapon. And that's too bad because the fullback, to me, was the quintessential football player. Big and bruising but athletic enough to put points on the board.

Alstott came out of a tradition that goes back to perhaps the best of them all, the Cleveland Browns' Marion Motley. I never saw Motley play, other than on grainy black-and-white film. But I did see the San Francisco 49ers' Joe "The Jet" Perry, considerably smaller than Motley but quicker. But that was a long time ago.

As someone who got paid to watch football, I have much more vivid recollections of the 49ers' Tom Rathman and the Dallas Cowboys' Daryl Johnston, who represented a shift in the fullback model. They could block and pick up short yardage, but in more modern offensive schemes, they became important parts of their respective teams' passing attacks. Rathman and Johnston ended their careers with more receiving yards than rushing yards; in the case of Johnston, it was almost a 3-to-1 ratio.

But after those two, fullbacks became almost exclusively blocking backs, perhaps epitomized by the Seattle Seahawks' aptly named Mack Strong. Strong was a two-time Pro Bowl pick who played for 15 years and retired early in the 2007 season, a victim of neck and spinal cord injuries, the occupational hazard for fullbacks.

"I'm a fullback. That kind of goes with the territory. You are always going to have some kind of pain or injury that you have to push through," Strong was quoted as saying in a news account when he announced he was quitting.

Alstott was more of a Marion Motley type. For a few seasons in the first half of his 12-year career, he was the Bucs' featured back, gaining 846 yards in 1998 and 949 yards in 1999.

He finished with 5,088 rushing yards, second in franchise history, and 2,284 receiving yards. Alstott played for Tampa Bay's Super Bowl-winning team, was selected to six Pro Bowls and his 71 touchdowns put him atop the list in that category for Tampa Bay.

His final injury, the one that kept him out for 2007, was, typically, a neck injury.

However, the game has changed, and it's anyone's guess whether players who line up at fullback will ever be used the same way as Alstott. More commonly, players with that type of speed and power, such as the New York Giants' Brandon Jacobs, simply wind up as an oversized featured back with someone else leading the blocking.

Alstott and his ilk will be missed.


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