The Men Who Play the American Football Ground Game - dummies

The Men Who Play the American Football Ground Game

By Howie Long, John Czarnecki

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 an 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. Read on to find out what each type of running back does, who tends to play in these positions, and how each player lines up behind the quarterback.

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.)

Tailback Mark Ingram (22) of the Alabama Crimson Tide fights off an Arkansas Razorbacks’ tack
Credit: Photo credit: © Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Tailback Mark Ingram (22) of the Alabama Crimson Tide fights off an Arkansas Razorbacks’ tackler in 2010.

Most runners would probably tell you that they wouldn’t mind carrying the ball even more often than they actually do. Toting the football is a status symbol, after all. The NFL record for rushing attempts in a single season belongs to Larry Johnson, then of the Kansas City Chiefs, who carried the ball 416 times in the 2006 season. That’s an astonishing 26 carries per game!

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.

In the old days, some of the best runners were fullbacks. Marion Motley of the 1949 Cleveland Browns weighed almost 240 pounds and carried defenders down the field. Cookie Gilchrist was a 252-pound fullback with the Buffalo Bills in the mid-1960s; he was one devastating blocker and could run, too. So could 237-pound Larry Csonka, a former Miami Dolphin, who, along with 230-pound John Riggins of the Washington Redskins, was the dominant fullback of the 1970s.

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.