The WCG All-Bears Post-Ditka fullbacks (click here for the series introduction)
Players in contention: Tony Carter (1994-1997), Craig “Ironhead” Heyward (1993), Bryan Johnson (2004-2005), Jason McKie (2003-2009), Daimon Shelton (2001-2002)
That’s the fullback.
Also referred to as the blocking back or simply the lead blocker, the fullback has his origins in bigger running backs like the Bears’ Bronko Nagurski and Cleveland’s Marion Motley. Today’s NFL has diminished the use of the traditional fullback, with more three-receiver or two-tight end sets, sometimes placing a tight end in the backfield — the proverbial h-back. But the traditional fullback is a lead blocker, short distance runner, and safety valve pass catcher.
And now, a brief yet detailed history of the fullback position in the Post-Ditka era.
Following the pseudo-trade of Brad Muster for Ironhead Heyward, the Bears employed a variety of fullbacks with varied success. Heyward did the job in ’93 and Merril Hoge played some in ’94 until he was knocked from the game (and The Game) with one too many concussions. The ‘Ultraback’ Raymont Harris filled in for the injured Hoge, starting 11 games in the playoff season.
Tony Carter held the job for three seasons starting in 1995, and an unknown named Ty Hallock blocked for Packers castaway Edgar Bennett in the disastrous 1998 season before the team flipped his number from 49 to 94 and turned him into a linebacker. (This actually happened.)
Hallock fell out of favor in 1999 with the arrival of offensive coordinator Gary Crowton and Crowton’s abolishment of a lead blocker in favor of three-receiver sets and bubble screens during his 3-QB Monte tenure.
The Bears returned to a more traditional offense the following year, signing Jacksonville standout Daimon Shelton before the 2001 season. The big bowling ball of a back proved extremely valuable, paving running lanes for Anthony Thomas and helping the Bears to their 13-3 record. But Shelton was suspended for four games for failing a drug test, STARTING WITH THE PLAYOFFS, and backup Stanley Pritchett started the playoff game in his stead.
Let’s pause on this, because Bears fans thinking back to that playoff loss against the Eagles tend to focus on Hugh Douglas bodyslamming Jim Miller and knocking him out of the game on an interception after the ball was picked, and Donovan McNabb juking and passing his way through the Bears D, but Shelton’s suspension was a huge blow. Look at the A-Train’s stats in Week 17 (Shelton’s final game) versus the playoffs:
- Against Jacksonville, Week 17: 33 carries, 160 yards, 1 TD
- Against Philadelphia, playoffs: 15 carries, 26 yards, 0 TD
Shelton returned from suspension in 2002 and started eight games, with the Bears often going three wide, followed by Pritchett starting 11 in 2003. Bryan Johnson signed with the team in 2004, and was productive blocking for both Thomas Jones and the A-Train while also scoring twice on short pass patterns. The Bears often employed tight end Dustin Lyman as an h-back in 2004, limiting Johnson’s starts.
Johnson entered the 2005 season as the starter, but injuries brought Marc Edwards into the rotation, with Edwards eventually yielding to Jason McKie, who played in only 30 games during his first four years in the league, playing one game with the Cowboys in 2002 and 29 with the Bears from 2003 to 2005.
McKie became the full-time starter in 2006, and has retained the job through 2009. From the Tribune in August of 2006:
McKie has started four of the 29 games he has played for the Bears over the past three seasons, including two last season when Johnson battled injuries again. But he thinks he's a better player now.
“I’ve worked harder at pass protection and blocking," McKie said. "You have to take advantage of this opportunity. On another note, I'm sad for Bryan. He worked so hard in the off-season. It's unfortunate he had another injury."
McKie, a 5-foot-11-inch, 243-pounder out of Temple, isn’t considered as flashy a player or as dynamic a receiver as Johnson. But as long as he blocks well for Thomas Jones or Cedric Benson, the Bears won’t mind.
“If you play fullback for us, you have to be able to block,” coach Lovie Smith said.
“Normally there will be a lead blocker in front of our tailback. So we’ll always be critiquing our fullback’s blocking.”
So, how is McKie’s?
“We think he has improved from the first preseason game when he didn’t block as well as he needs to,” Smith said.
McKie played 87 games with the Bears, starting 46, and started all four playoff games after the 2005 and 2006 seasons. He was a devastating hitter and an effective offensive option. He scored on a 3-yard run against the Panthers in the playoffs, and was the lead blocker on Thomas Jones’ 52-yard run in the Super Bowl.
Since McKie’s departure, the Bears have strayed away from using a full-time fullback. In 2010, we signed tight end Brandon Manumaleuna and often used him in the backfield with Greg Olsen at a traditional tight end role. Other h-backs or blocking tight ends who have filled in for the fullback have included Matt Spaeth, Evan Rodriguez, Tony Fiammetta, and Logan Paulsen. The most starts for a traditional fullback since McKie’s departure was Tyler Clutts, who started eight games in 2011. (Thank you to RockBadger in the comments for reminding me that Clutts was not mentioned!)
Since 2012, our fullback snap count percentage (per pro-football-reference.com) look like this:
- 2012: Evan Rodriguez: 20.4%
- 2013: Tony Fiammetta: 20.8%
- 2014: Fiametta: 0.6% (6 snaps)
- 2015: none
- 2016: Paul Lasike: 7.5%
So... who was seriously considered for the WCG AB PD Fullback starting spot?
Shelton was great in 2001, but his suspension and overall short tenure with the team hurt his chances on our squad. Johnson was also excellent when he played, but that time was limited by injuries.
Our runner-up was Tony Carter. The Golden Gopher notched 106 receptions in his four Bears seasons for 738 yards, making him easily the biggest receiving threat among all fullbacks.
But there is no knocking off the great J-Mack, who played seven seasons strictly because of his value as a lead blocker — paving the way for 1,000-yard seasons for Thomas Jones and Matt Forte — and as a teammate and leader. As Cedric Benson said:
He was a good guy. He was the fullback and it didn’t matter who was back there — he was blocking. He was cool with everybody.
The WCG Committee was unanimous in its selection of McKie. Two notes from the Committee:
Lester Wiltfong: Brad Muster was a better offensive player, but for a traditional fullback, I'll take McKie. Give me an old school do it all FB like Tom Rathman and I'm good!
Ken Mitchell: If we were doing the “All-Training Camp” version the answer, without a doubt, would be Havey Unga.
And while we’re here, shoutout to the late Ironhead Heyward for teaching us about lather builders:
NEXT WEDNESDAY: the tight end, one of two modern positions that the Bears franchise is credited with inventing...
All statistics from pro-football-reference.com, unless otherwise noted.
YOU BE THE JUDGE
Who is the BEST fullback of the post-Ditka era?
This poll is closed