Everything was changing in the 1980s. The Berlin Wall was crumbling. Movies such as Valley Girl, Sixteen Candles, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off among others were shaping pop culture (with The Simpsons coming late on to tear it down). The internet and computers were becoming a household name thanks to the Macintosh, IBM, and the cult classic Amiga. The golden age of arcade games and Atari made way for the savior of the 1983 Game Crash, the NES, changing video gaming forever. Hip-hop entered a golden age, entering the mainstream for arguably the first time thanks to Run D.M.C, the Beastie Boys, and N.W.A. And yes, football as we knew it was changing.
The NFL was falling in love with the high octane passing offense. Vertical attacks through the air were becoming the norm. One element of football’s past would be phased out during this time. The rushing Fullback. Names such as Larry Csonka, Jim Brown, Jim Taylor, Marion Motley, and Bronko Nagurski were legends of the game leading all the way back since the ’40s. They were hulking Fullbacks that ran with savageness and no regard for human life. In the ‘80s and then on, the Fullback would become something different. That began with Joe Gibbs and Bill Walsh.
In 1979, Joe Gibbs reunited with longtime head coach Don Coryell in San Diego where he became the offensive coordinator. The two had spent a good majority of their career together leading back to Gibbs’s time as a player and assistant coach at San Diego State in the 60s. Gibbs would conduct the famed “Air Coryell” offense, which utilized medium and long-range passing alongside a strong inside running game. Led by HoF Quarterback Dan Fouts and HoF Tight End Kellen Winslow, the Chargers torch the league offensively (they averaged more than 400 yards of offense per game). While the Air Coryell offense was initially run out of the familiar pro set in the late ’70s (one Tight End, two Wide Receivers, a Halfback, and a Fullback), Gibbs began to change some things when he acquired pro bowl Running Back Chuck Muncie in 1980. He started to utilize the single back set with an extra Tight End in place of the all too familiar Fullback. This would become his breadwinner in Washington, as he would become their head coach in ’81.
In Washington, Gibbs molded elements of the Air Coryell offense to suit a smashmouth style of football. The result was the counter trey offense, and the single back set was tailor-made for it. The extra Tight End was often used for extra protection. This effectively nerfed HoFer Linebacker Lawrence Taylor whenever Washington and the NY Giants met. To counteract any loss in power due to the loss of the Fullback, Gibbs crafted the finest offensive line on the planet. “The Hogs.”
Center Jeff Bostic, HoF left guard Russ Grimm, right guard Mark May, left tackle Joe Jacoby, right tackle George Starke, guard Fred Dean, and Tight Ends Don Warren and Rick Walker formed an offensive line that would move mountains for their QB and RB. And they had to, knowing they were facing some of the greatest defenders of all time and because they had three different starting quarterbacks in each of their Super Bowl wins (Joe Theismann, Doug Williams, and Mark Rypien). The running game went fine without a conventional fullback. In fact, many saw HoF RB John Riggins as a Fullback due to his power, but he was one of many to usher in the power Running Back (Speaking of Riggens, he was fucking electric. His nickname was Diesel. He got drunk at a black-tie event, told Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to lighten up after firing countless dirty jokes, then passed out and started snoring during Vice President George H.W Bush’s speech). Which raised the question. What's the point of the Fullback now that the single back set is ruling?
Bill Walsh had this very same question too, and with this in mind, he developed the West Coast offense (or at least a more modified version of the offense he developed back as an assistant coach for the Bengals in the late 60s/early 70s). It focused on short, horizontal passes such as slants to open up the defense to potential gashes both in the running game and deep passing game. We would see a return of the Fullback but in a much more specific role this time. Tom Rathman was used purely as a lead blocker for Walsh’s 49ers, especially for fellow Nebraska alum Roger Craig, thus creating the “Cornfield Backfield.” He still got the ball sometimes, he was a fearsome runner back in his college days after all, but Rathman’s workload was a far cry from the fullbacks of yore. This trend would continue into the late ’80s and ’90s. Fullbacks like Keith Byars and Daryl “The Moose” Johnston (primetime Fullback name by the way) were the poster boys of reliability when it came to blocking, receiving, and the occasional run. And I’m not bullshitting when I say that. Between 1988 and 1995, Byars averaged 62 catches and 588 yards per year while Johnston literally made the Fullback a position in the Pro Bowl because of his blocking contributions. But then something happened in 1996. Something that put us in a time machine purely for 70’s football. A time where the rushing Fullback was king. Mike Alstott was drafted.
After dominating at Purdue en route to 3,635 rushing yards and 39 touchdowns (he still has the record for career rushing yards and single-season rushing yards, that being 1436), Alstott was drafted in the second round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the ’96 draft with the sole purpose of transitioning from Running Back to Fullback. Two important points of context as Alstott was being drafted. Fullbacks were beginning to fall in the pecking order of the NFL draft. The last Fullback drafted with a first-round pick was William Floyd in ‘94 (going into the 2000s and 2010s, it would be rare for a team to spend a third-round pick on one, let alone even draft one). And the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were shit. Historically shit may I add.
After the famed “Cardiac Kids” strike-shortened season of ’82 where they went 5–4, they would have FOURTEEN consecutive losing seasons (like look at ’86, they had a -234 point differential. Jesus Christ). On the bright side, Tampa Bay did come across some Super Bowl winning QBs. Only problem? They won Super Bowls for other teams. They had Steve Young after his bust-up with the USFL in ‘85. He inherited a squad that went 2–14 in consecutive years. Of course, Tampa thought Young was the problem so they shipped him off to San Fran to be Joe Montana’s back up. And you know how that turned out. His replacement, first overall pick Vinny Testaverde, won two Pro Bowls with the Jets and Ravens after looking like a bonafide bust with the Bucs. Then they got Trent Dilfer in the ’94 draft. He would throw 18 picks and 19 picks in his first two years as a starter. He did show improvement and ended up as a Pro Bowler in ’97 thanks to a strong running game helping him out (I wonder who helped with that). But inconsistent play and injuries convinced the Bucs to let him go in ’99. He would go on to win the 2000 Super Bowl with the Ravens while being the picture-perfect definition of a game manager. Who would have thought? And oh yeah, the Buccaneers were bankrupt until Malcome Glazer saved them in ‘95. Knowing all of this, how would a Fullback help reverse all of this bad juju, in an age where the Fullback is beginning to die? Provide a spark. But Alstott decided to lay the dynamite.
After a solid rookie season where he led the team in yards from scrimmage (934) and touchdowns (6), he and first-round rookie Warrick Dunn would make a dynamic thunder and lighting combo in ’97. Both of them would make the Pro Bowl, with Alstott taking All-Pro honors. After that season, he would hence be known as the “A-Train.” The Bucs would make the playoffs for the first time since ’82. They had a redesigned logo, shiny new pewter jerseys, and a new state of the art stadium coming soon. Things were on the up for Tampa Bay. And Mike Alstott would be a cornerstone of this revitalization.
1998 would be a weird transition year though. Yes, the Buccaneers had the grand unveiling of their new home, Raymond James Stadium. The main problem with that though? They had to play their first six games away because the stadium wasn’t finished yet and they struggled a bit as a result. This was an interesting year in the history of Fullbacks, however. Alstott would make his second consecutive Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors to go along with his 846 yards rushing and 8 rushing TDs. He had a very special partner helping him that year and that year only. The best blocking Fullback of all time and a symbol of the post rushing Fullback era. Lorenzo Neal. Imagine being a defender and seeing these two line up in their “Rhino” package. Nightmare inducing. Their joint interview on Pardon My Take is amazing too so listen to that if you want to know more about the Fullback and the backstories these two have (like the John Lynch rule).
The old saying is you gotta zig while others zag, but the ultmate zig is to not zig and instead add another inch to your neckroll and get downhill on someones ass with reckless abandon like Sonny Bono no offense.
- PFT Commenter
’99 would be primetime A-Train. With the usually spectacular Warrick Dunn having an off-year and the Bucs playing musical chairs with their QBs Trent Dilfer, Eric Zeier, and rookie Shawn King, Alstott indeed added another inch to his neckroll to bring the Bucs back to the playoffs. He had 949 yards rushing, nine total touchdowns, and 1188 yards of scrimmage to cap off his third straight (and final) All-Pro season. Then he made Washington look like preschoolers in the NFC Divisional Round.
So the Bucs are officially back, with a prime Alstott firing on all cylinders, and money to spend. You’d assume they’d be challenging for a Super Bowl like the Glazers hope they are, right? Well, Alstott would make the Pro Bowl in 2000 and 2001 (where he set his career best in regards to rushing TDs, which is 10), with the Bucs making the playoffs both times.
They also acquired WR Keyshawn Johnson from the Jets and made him the highest-paid receiver in the league. But they would face their biggest adversity in the playoffs. Cold weather. And it didn’t help that the Donovan McNabb led Philidelphia Eagles played well too. The Bucs were knocked out of the Wild Card two years in a row by the Eagles. Good news, at least the Bucs knew who their QB was so at least the musical chairs was done. Shawn King was forever benched, and they seriously tried out Ryan Leaf (yes, THAT Ryan Leaf) in the 2001 preseason before going with veteran QB and former Washington Pro Bowler Brad Johnson. At this point, the Bucs needed a bigger change so they fired Coach Dungy in favor of Jon Gruden, fresh off a spectacular playoff run with the Raiders (which cost them an arm and a leg when it came to draft picks and money. After this, there would be no more coach trading). Warrick Dunn was also let go as his contract expired. Now it was Alstott’s and new RB Michael Pittman’s backfield. And Alstott would be expected to shoulder the load when it came to power running, even more so than before. Was he up to the task?
Hell yeah he was. He would again make the Pro Bowl for the sixth time in a row and led the team in rushing touchdowns. He and the Bucs wouldn’t be denied in the postseason this time. Alstott would score two rushing touchdowns in the Divisional Rounds versus the 49ers. He would then get his revenge versus the Eagles in the NFC Championship with a signature one-yard rushing touchdown (a fullback staple). It was then time to make history in the Super Bowl against the Jerry Rice led Raiders.
It would be seventeen agonizing years until another fullback scored in the Super Bowl (that being Kyle Juszczyk in 2019). Gruden and company would ransack the Raiders 48–21. I guess Gruden knowing all of the signals that were still installed when he was with the Raiders helped huh.
This Super Bowl win couldn’t have come at a better time for Alstott, as age was slowly catching up to him. 2003 would be a clear sign of that, as neck issues would sideline him for a good majority of the season. Adding on to this, the Bucs were having the mother of all Super Bowl hangovers (I’m talking Tequila hangover). Players were arguing with coaches, Gruden was getting into squabbles with GM Rich McKay, everything was falling off the rails. Keyshawn Johnson would be deactivated for the final seven games of the season then traded to the Cowboys that following offseason. Rich McKay would even leave the Bucs before the season ended in favor of the Falcons. His first game as GM of the Falcons was a win versus his former Bucs in Tampa. Talk about awkward. The Bucs would miss the playoffs and a mad exodus followed. Buccaneer legends Warren Sapp and John Lynch were released to much displeasure from the fans, alongside the aforementioned trade of Keyshawn Johnson.
Alstott would be healthier in ‘04 and ‘05 but he was seeing less and less usage, especially with Michael Pittman and 2005 first-round pick Cadillac Williams claiming most of the carries. He was pretty much only used on the goal line, hence his six TDs but only 80 rushing yards in ’05, a year where he signed a one year contract. Alstott still flashed some of his vintage violence in his runs but it was obvious he wasn’t a focal point anymore. The role Alstott had at this point in his career mimics how many Fullbacks in the 2000’s and 2010’s were used. Battering rams purely for the goal line. John Kuhn would make a living for the Packer faithful doing this one job.
The Bucs would have a solid year in ’05, winning the NFC South but they were trounced in the Wild Card by Washington. Then it was back to being garbage. At this point, Alstott was contemplating retirement, both due to his past injuries and waning playing time. But he decided to grit it out (like a true Fullback) and sign a one year contract. In what was a dismal year for the Bucs, Alstott did get some more carries (and one of the best trucks in his career) but he couldn’t do anything to help put out this dumpster fire. The once dominant Bucs defense was old and vulnerable. The team had six starters put on IR (this included RB Cadillac Williams and starting QB Chris Simms). All of this led to a revolting 4–12 finish, bringing them back to where they were in ’04. Alstott, determined to restore Tampa’s respect, signed one more one year contract. But at this point, he already played the final snap of his career.
While the Bucs, armed with new free agency acquisitions such as veteran QB Jeff Garcia and 100 sack club member Kevin Carter, would bounce back to make the playoffs, Alstott was shut down due to neck issues. He would then call it a career after the ‘07 season. An unceremonious end to one of the best Fullback careers in NFL history.
Looking back at the numbers, Alstott racked up 5088 yards rushing (second in Tampa Bay history), 58 rushing touchdowns (first in Tampa Bay history), and 7372 total yards from scrimmage. Compared to Fullbacks who only ran the ball, such as Larry Csonka, Jim Taylor, and Jim Brown, Alstott comes up short, decisively so. But those legendary names played in an era that praised the Fullback. Alstott emerged in an era where the Fullback was being pushed to the wayside offensively. He became a multifaceted weapon for both Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden because he had to. His rushing, receiving, and blocking skills were all utilized. For example, Csonka does have more rushing touchdowns than Alstott with 64, but Alstott has more total touchdowns than the Sundance Kid with 73 (compared to Csonka’s 68). He also has more than double the receiving yards. He even eclipses John Riggins and Jim Taylor when it comes to receiving.
When it comes to rushing, he puts post 80’s Fullbacks to shame. Lorenzo Neal, who is undoubtedly the best blocking Fullback of all time, only garnered 807 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns. Alstott outrushed Neal’s entire career both for yards and TDs in the ’98 season, the season they spent together. Alstott handsomely outrushed other Pro Bowl fullbacks both during his time and the 2010's. Larry Centers (2188), Tony Richardson (1727), William Henderson (he didn’t even have a single carry in his All-Pro/Pro Bowl season), Mack Strong (909), John Kuhn (658), and the rushing totals dip further and further down. The only one who had comparable rushing numbers to Alstott, at least for one season, was Le’Ron McClain in 2008 (902 yards and 10 TDs). But look at his next Pro Bowl season. Only 180 yards. Willis McGahee and the recently drafted Ray Rice (yikes) ate up all of McClain’s carries. Kyle Juszczyk, the modern-day king of the Fullback assist, has only 93 rushing yards as of now.
Alstott truly was the last of his kind. Plenty of Fullbacks blocked better than Alstott, but not run or catch like him. Some Fullbacks could catch better than Alstott, but not run like him. Few Fullbacks could run better than Alstott, but not catch like him. And in a time of massive change, the Bucs turned to Alstott as a cornerstone piece. Not too many teams, especially now, look for an offensive spark from a fullback. Which shows even more why he should be enshrined in Canton as the last rushing Fullback.