What the Running Backs Do in a Football Game

Understanding what’s going on during football running plays is much easier when you know who’s responsible for the running game. The next time you see a football offense set up, look for the two players who line up in the offensive backfield (the area of the field behind the quarterback and the line of scrimmage). These players are the running backs. The smaller one is the main ball carrier, and the larger one is the guy charged with protecting the ball carrier:

  • The halfback: A team’s principal ball carrier. On most teams, the principal ball carrier is called the halfback (also called the tailback or the running back). When teams — be they high school, college, or NFL teams — find a good running back, they give him the ball. And they give it to him as often as he’s willing and able to carry it. (Check out this figure to see former Alabama tailback Mark Ingram in action.)

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Photo credit: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

  • The fullback: Protector of the halfback. When a team employs two running backs in the offensive backfield, the bigger of the two is usually called the fullback. He’s there to block and clear the way for the halfback, who’s the main ball carrier. You may think that the fullback’s job is a thankless one, but most fullbacks get a lot of satisfaction from making a great block (generally on a linebacker) and winning the physical battle against players who tend to be bigger than they are.

    It’s interesting to note that because of the way offenses have evolved, especially in college football, the traditional fullback position appears to be going the way of the dinosaur. Some NFL teams have no true fullback on their roster. The spread offense, with its emphasis on passing, doesn’t require a fullback. Big, strong, fast players who in previous years might have played fullback are now playing on the other side of the ball, in the linebacker position.

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