State Your Case: Mike Alstott

The game's last true fullback

(Published December 2020)

Fullback was once a full participant in an NFL offense.

They were players who could run, catch and block. The halfbacks in a backfield represented the speed and the fullbacks the power.

Jim Brown was the prototype NFL fullback. He won eight rushing titles in his nine-year career with the Cleveland Browns. The one year he missed, 1962, Green Bay fullback Jim Taylor claimed the crown. Both Brown and Taylor now have busts in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Alan “The Horse” Ameche and Rick Casares won NFL rushing titles in the 1950s as fullbacks. Cookie Gilchrist and Jim Nance won a pair of AFL rushing crowns apiece, then Larry Csonka emerged as the battering ram fullback for the two-time Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins in the early 1970s.

But the position was evolving with less of an emphasis on what a player could do with a handoff as with what he could do with a pass. MacArthur Lane won an NFL pass-receiving title as a fullback in the 1970s as did Roger Craig in the 1980s.

By the 1990s, the fullback position was becoming even more specialized. He was no longer a “running” back. He was a “blocking” back with Daryl “Moose” Johnston leading the way for the Dallas Cowboys. He served as the lead blocker for the NFL’s all-time leading rusher Emmitt Smith. In 1992, when the Cowboys won their first Super Bowl of the decade, Johnston touched the ball 50 times on 32 rushes and 18 receptions. Smith touched it 432 times on runs and receptions on his way to an NFL rushing title.

The position has been populated ever since with blockers – Lorenzo Neal, Vonta Leach, Tony Richardson, Mike Tolbert, John Kuhn… All went to the Pro Bowl because of their ability to pancake defenders. In 1995, the NFL even added a “fullback” designation to the Pro Bowl.

Which brings us to the last true fullback the NFL game has seen – Mike Alstott. His career came three decades late. Had he played in the 1960s, Alstott already would have been in the Hall of Fame discussion and might even have a bust. But his career has been lost in the blur of the great tailbacks of his generation – Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith, Edgerrin James, Curtis Martin, Terrell Davis, Priest Holmes and LaDainian Tomlinson.

Alstott was on the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s preliminary list for the Class of 2021 but he didn’t make the cut. He deserved better. He deserves to make a cut. His career was deserving of that discussion – because he may be the very last true fullback ever considered for the Hall of Fame.

Alstott arrived in the NFL as a second-round draft pick out of Purdue in 1996. That was the year Tony Dungy arrived to coach the Bucs and he put Alstott on the field right away. He rushed for only 377 yards but caught 65 passes as a rookie. Warrick Dunn arrived in Tampa the next season as a first-round draft pick and Dungy suddenly had a Thunder & Lightning package in his backfield.

The “thunder” increased each of the next three seasons as Alstott rushed for 665 yards and seven touchdowns in 1997, 846 yards and eight touchdowns in 1998 and a career-best 949 yards and seven touchdowns in 1999 as the Buccaneers reached the NFC title game for the first time in 20 years. Alstott then displayed his blocking skills in 2000 as Dunn rushed for the first 1,000-yard season of his career.

Alstott was voted to six consecutive Pro Bowls from 1997 through 2002. He also was elected first-team all-pro three consecutive seasons (1997-99). He scored the first-ever Tampa Bay touchdown in a Super Bowl in 2003 when the Bucs went on to capture the only Lombardi Trophy in franchise history with a victory over the Oakland Raiders.

“Mike played a huge role in the transformation of the Bucs into a Super Bowl contender,” Dungy said. “From a strategic standpoint, he was a fullback who could get tough inside yards. He caught the football well, creating big plays with short passes, and he was a very underrated blocker. Warrick Dunn won Rookie of the Year honors following him.

“But his impact on the team was so much more than that. He gave the Bucs an identity and a mentality – that of a physical offense that could run the ball on anyone, home or away. The defense was great, for sure, but Mike helped that defense be great by creating time of possession advantages and icing games in the fourth quarter.”

Alstott played all 11 of his NFL seasons with the Bucs and was enshrined in Tampa Bay’s Ring of Honor in 2015. This is his 11th year of eligibility for the Hall of Fame but to this point there has been no movement on his candidacy. The game’s last true fullback deserves better.


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