Larry Rankin is a sports analyst with an especially strong penchant for statistical breakdowns.
The following is a two part series analyzing Fullbacks from the “modern era,” meaning post 1985, whose accomplishments are most deserving of consideration for the Hall of Fame. In this series I will be focusing on the two players that best fit the criteria for this accolade. My first installment will analyze the career of John L. Williams of the Seattle Seahawks and Pittsburgh Steelers (1986-1995). The subsequent installment will cover the career of Larry Centers of the Phoenix/Arizona Cardinals, Washington Redskins, Buffalo Bills, and New England Patriots.
Before I began talking about the candidates, I want to give a historical backdrop of how the position has evolved in the last few decades.
History of the Fullback Position
Fullback, it is a position that many knowledgeable NFL fans would describe as dead or at least on life support. For various reasons the fullback position has been trending downward gradually, year by year, since the early 1980’s. It started with the position falling out of favor as a primary means of rushing offense. The Jim Browns, Larry Csonkas, and Franco Harrises, rockstar fullbacks who received the lion’s share of carries out of the backfield, are all gone now. Teams began finding it more prosperous to hand the ball to the carrier behind the fullback, the halfback. As a result, from the mid 1980’s to the 2000’s the fullback position primarily became that of another lineman.
Within the last few years the true fullback has all but disappeared in the NFL. The two main reasons for this are the prevalence of passing, causing most teams to primarily run 4 receiver, 1 back sets, and teams not wanting to sacrifice roster spots on the position, with rosters being so drastically whittled down these days. Instead, NFL teams have taken to putting tight-ends and back-up halfbacks in the position on the few short yardage and goal line situations they employ a blocking back.
But the fullback position still exists, and since the last great fullback from the position’s heyday, Franco Harris, a few players have actually been productive at the position. It isn’t the same type of feature-back production of the old days, but just because the definition of a position changes, does that mean we shouldn’t acknowledge new era players for their greatness?
In determining what would be sufficient for a fullback playing in the era from 1985 to present day to get into the Hall of Fame, I asked myself, What defines a great fullback during this era opposed to older ones? The answer is the same stuff, but with the variance being in the importance and expected statistical output. Below I give a description of the various criteria I considered and a weighted importance of 1-5 to give you an idea of how the position has changed over the years.
- Touches—Perhaps the biggest difference between old-school fullbacks and those from more modern eras is simply the number of opportunities they get to touch the ball. Whereas a great fullback like Franco Harris got to touch the ball over 3,200 times in his career, John L. Williams barely eclipsed half of that and Larry Centers didn’t even get 1,500 touches in his 14 year career. This is an important factor to consider when comparing Fullbacks of old to more modern ones. Weight of Criteria, Old Era: 5, 1985-Present: 2
- Blocking—Regardless of the era, fullbacks were expected to be great blockers, whether that be protecting the quarterback or creating space for the halfback. The difference between the importance of blocking in these eras is that elite old-school fullbacks were often expected to be as productive carrying the ball as they were blocking for ball carriers, but more modern fullbacks are looked to as blockers above all else. Weight of Criteria, Old Era: 5, 1985-Present: 5
- Rushing—Elite old-school fullbacks were often the team’s primary ball-carrier. Though it is a great boon for newer era fullbacks to be effective runners, they seldom lead their team in carries. Weight of Criteria, Old Era: 5, 1985-Present: 2
- Receiving—Making a lot of catches is always an important accomplishment when it comes time to assess if a back gets into the Hall of Fame, but history would indicate that it is a more desirable trait in modern fullbacks than those of the past. For example, of Larry Csonka, Jim Brown, and Franco Harris, only Brown could be described as an exceptional receiving back. Larry Csonka was almost never called upon to catch the ball. A good fullback in the modern era is often called upon to catch the ball more than he runs it. Weight of Criteria, Old Era: 2, 1985-Present: 4
- Yards from Scrimmage—A good modern fullback, in addition to blocking, is expected to make the best of all his touches, whether that be running or catching the ball, whereas fullbacks from earlier eras were gauged primarily by their rushing and blocking. Weight of Criteria, Old Era: 2, 1985-Present: 5
Success—It is always helpful to have been a member of successful teams when it comes time to determine if a player is to get into the Hall of Fame. That being said, unless you’re a quarterback, Super Bowls are not the end all be all. If a player’s stats are significant, a lack of championships is easily overcome. Weight of Criteria, Old Era: 3, 1985-Present: 3
What we can take from this analysis is that what determines if a modern fullback should be considered for the Hall of Fame versus ones from the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s is different in scope. The Hall of Fame is supposed to pick standout players from given eras. What is so unusual about the fullback is that things have gone backwards statistically.
For example, an NFL receiver from the 60’s who finished with 8,000 career receiving yards would probably get into the Hall of Fame. In comparison, a wide receiver who retires with over 12,000 career yards today probably won’t get in because it is not that exceptional of a feat anymore. In comparison, a fullback from the mid 80’s-present probably should be considered if they were a good blocker and were able to accumulate over 8,000 yards from scrimmage versus a Hall of Fame fullback from an older era who would need over 8,000 yards just in the rushing category.
At 5’11’’ and 231 lbs, John L. Williams was always considered a ferocious blocker by his peers. Though blocking ability is a hard skill to quantify, one can look to a few statistical factors.
First off, when looking at fullbacks, one can look at the performance of the halfbacks behind them. Curt Warner had several stellar seasons behind Williams, rushing for almost 1,500 yards in 1986, 985 yards in 1987, and 1025 yards in 1988. Do you remember Derrick Fenner? Probably not, but his one good season was spent behind John L. Williams, 859 yards and 14 touchdowns. Then came Chris Warren, having back to back 1,000 yard seasons in 1992 and 1993.
And things didn’t change when Williams went to Pittsburgh. In 1994 the running duo of Barry Foster and Bam Morris combined for almost 1,700 yards, and in 1995 Eric Pegram and Morris combined for over 1,300.
Second, one can look at the performance of quarterbacks to gauge a fullback’s blocking prowess. Again, whether it be Dave Krieg or Neal O’Donnell, the quarterbacks behind Williams performed well, amassing many 3,000+ passing seasons.
The final thing one can consider is the culture of the teams the player was on. Prior to recent years, the Seahawks were seen as mediocre, yet during Williams tenure they were competitive, making the playoffs twice: 1987 and 1988. Pittsburgh, on the other hand, is known for Super Bowls, and during Williams 2 years there they made a deep run the 1st year and lost to the Cowboys in the Super Bowl during his 2nd.
All factors considered, it would seem Williams was an elite blocker.
John L. Williams Highlights
Yards from Scrimmage Analysis
Below is a list of the total yards from scrimmage of players who spent the majority of their careers at fullback.
|Player||Yards from Scrimmage||Hall of Fame|
1. Jim Brown (1957-65)
2. Franco Harris (1972-84)
3. John Riggins (1971-85)
4. Joe Perry (1948-63)
5. Jim Taylor (1958-67)
6. John L. Williams (1986-95)
7.Chuck Foreman (1973-80)
8. Bill Brown (1961-1974)
9. Larry Centers (1990-03)
10. Larry Csonka (1968-79)
Franco Harris was a first ballot Hall of Famer in 1990. Though the first 2 seasons of Harris' career he was labeled as running back, his last 11 years were spent at fullback. For this reason, I identify Harris as the last fullback to be inducted into the Hall of Fame and not John Riggins, inducted in 1992. Riggins’ last 5 seasons, over 1/3 of his career, were spent at running back.
The truth of the matter is that it is hard to find true fullbacks. If you watch highlight reels, Franco Harris is often the sole back behind Bradshaw. This is one thing that makes John L. Williams so exceptional. Almost all his statistical accomplishments came lined up in front of a halfback. If we want to find a player comparable in that regard, we need to go all the way back to Larry Csonka, inducted in 1985. More food for thought, below is the same list, but this time sans any seasons the players were labeled something other than fullback.
|Player||Yards from Scrimmage||Hall of Fame|
1. Jim Brown (1957-65)
2. Franco Harris (1972-84)
3. Joe Perry (1948-63)
4. Jim Taylor (1958-67)
5. John L. Williams (1986-95)
6. Bill Brown (1961-74)
7. Larry Centers (1990-03)
8. Larry Csonka (1968-79)
9. John Riggins (1971-85)
10. Ken Willard (1965-74)
What this lists shows us is that during the beginning of the decline of the fullback position and well on into it, John L. Williams was able to gain comparable yards to many of the Hall of Fame fullbacks playing in the heyday of the position, and in only 10 seasons, a shorter career than most on the list.
Receptions/Receiving Yards Analysis
Below is a list of the leading running backs in career receptions.
1. Larry Centers
2. Marshall Faulk
3. LaDanian Tomlinson
4. Keith Byars
5. Marcus Allen
6. Tiki Barber
7. Ronnie Harmon
8. Roger Craig
9. John L. Williams
10. Emmitt Smith
As the list indicates, John L. Williams is in elite company amongst receiving running backs, and he is even more so among receiving Fullbacks. His 546 career receptions and 4,656 yards ranks 2nd only to Larry Centers 827 receptions for 6,797 yards among all fullbacks. His 19 career touchdown receptions, though not earth-shattering, is still impressive for a fullback coming out of the backfield.
Williams was a reliable receiver, eclipsing 50 receptions in 7 of his 10 seasons and going over 500 yards receiving 4 times. He was also a bit of a homerun threat. Williams’ speed was rare for a fullback, allowing him to make receptions of over 50 yards on 4 occasions (2 for 75 yard touchdowns). His 699 yards receiving in 1990 and his 76 catches in 1989 were his best campaigns.
Rushing Yards Analysis
John L. Williams 18 career rushing touchdowns is not that impressive of a number, but in an era that seldom used fullbacks as ball carriers, his 5,006 career rushing yards and 4 yards a carry is. Only Mike Alstott’s 5,088 rushing yards ranks higher for a fullback post 1985 and only 18 other people have surpassed Williams' rushing total solely at the fullback position.
His 877 yards in 1988 was a career best, and he surpassed the 500 yard mark 5 times in his 10 year career, despite never carrying the ball more than 189 times in a season. Like in receiving, Williams possessed the ability to break long runs, going over 40 yards on 3 occasions, even though the position of fullback is not conducive to long yardage plays.
Analysis of Team Success
John L. Williams does not have a post-season record that stands out, but it certainly doesn’t hurt his cause either. In his career he was on a team that qualified for post-season 4 times and played in 7 games. On 2 occasions, 1987 and 1988, he went to the playoffs with the Seattle Seahawks, both times losing in the 1st round. On 2 occasions he went to the playoffs with the Pittsburgh Steelers, in 1994 where they lost to the Chargers in the Conference Championship and in 1995 where they lost to the Dallas Cowboys in the Super Bowl.
And Williams was always a playoff contributor, whether it be blocking, running, or receiving. His best statistical performance came in 1988 with the Seahawks while playing the Cincinnati Bengals. Williams caught 11 passed for 137 yards and a touchdown. His 4 career post-season touchdowns, 2 receiving and 2 rushing, is an impressive accomplishment for a fullback.
Williams received the Pro-Bowl accolade only twice, 1990 and 1991, which probably does hurt him in regards to the Hall of Fame. This is one reason I don’t personally put much stock in the Pro-Bowl as a determining factor of Hall of Fame eligibility. Yes, it can be a helpful barometer of talent, but often times it is misleading.
First off, I am familiar with the players of Williams' era, and I have a hard time understanding how Williams didn’t make the Pro-Bowl at least 4 times, if not more.
Second, one fullback is usually chosen for the NFC and for the AFC each year. If, for example, Williams was the next fullback on the list for seven straight years, and the person in front of him is someone different each year, doesn’t that prove he was the best fullback of his era? In addition, often times the player selected isn’t even a fullback, but a running back put in by popular demand. These factors considered, it is next to impossible for an elite fullback to get a fair shake in the modern era if we look to Pro-Bowls for validation.
John L. Williams was never a 1st ballot Hall of Fame candidate. Though his career was exceptional, it doesn’t stand out so much that anyone would say, You got to get him in right away! But he certainly does deserve to get in, and seeing as a fullback hasn’t been inducted in 24 years, it’s time.
It would be one thing if there was no one around worthy of the induction. For example, of the few fullbacks playing in the NFL currently, none are going to get enough play time to warrant a nomination, but John L. Williams does, more so than any fullback to play in his era. A fullback is not a halfback, especially in modern football. Yet people seem to think that fullbacks need the same 12,000 yards rushing and 90 touchdowns it takes to get a halfback in these days. In the same breadth, a halfback doesn’t have to be able to throw monstrous blocks and catch over 500 passes to get in the Hall of Fame.
On every level John L. Williams meets and surpasses what a Hall of Fame fullback needed to be during his era. A lineman who could barrel over defenders and catch a 5 yard pass that he turned into a 75 yard touchdown, a player who combined for over 700 more total yards than 2nd ballot Hall of Famer Larry Csonka, yet played in an era that didn’t utilize or celebrate his position.
Larry Rankin (author) from Oklahoma on March 31, 2015:
The fullback position of old was certainly more of a glamour position.
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 31, 2015:
Great fodder for debate. Oh how I loved watching Csonka play. I would have loved Harris but I hated the Steelers. LOL