The New Age F: What Do the Cowboys Want in an F-Back?

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This man needs a sidekick

Part one of positional breakdowns looked at the F-back position, and how it functioned for the Cowboys in the ’90s, when Daryl Johnston played the role.  F-backs who block first and catch second — but who can do both effectively — have disappeared as more college programs have switched to spread offenses.  Very few use a true fullback anymore.

You’ve probably seen the claims of the ”new age tight ends” as speedy players like Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis and Jermichael Finley created match-up headaches for defensive coordinators with their size and speed.  They are too big for corners to handle and too fast for linebackers.

The best combo is in New England, where Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez combined for over 2200 receiving yards:

Gronkowski — 90 catches, 1327 yards, 14.7 ypc.
Hernandez —  79 catches, 910 yards,  11.5 ypc.

Add their totals to Wes Welker’s 122 receptions and you see percentage splits similar to those of the ’90′s teams.  The major difference being power — those Triplets Cowboys ran and passed in a nearly 50/50 split.  The Brady-led Patriots threw 58% of the time last year, and ran just 42% of the time.  With tight ends who can get down the field, and no true fullback, they played to their strength.

Let’s look at one series the Patriots ran against the Dolphins in the ’11 opener to see how Gronkowski and Hernandez work together.  Here are five stills showing the formations on New England’s opening drive, which resulted in a touchdown.  The first thing to note is the role each plays.  Gronkowski is always the Y.  Sometimes he’s next to a tackle.  Sometimes he’s flexed into the slot.  He’s always on the line.

Hernandez always plays the F-back.  Note, that the Pats use personnel groupings similar to Dallas.  Even though the Patriots are a throwing team, you never see a 3-wideout set in this sequence.  The team either uses the 12 package, with one running back, the two tight ends, and two receivers, or the heavy 13 set, with three tight ends and one wideout.

On the opening play of the sequence, Hernandez (81) lines up on the wing, flanking Gronkowski (87) giving the Pats a power side on the right:

On the next play the Pats go three tight, and put Hernandez in the right slot, between tight end Dan Gronkowski and Wes Welker.  Hernandez motions towards the line and cracks down on the outside linebacker, while BenJarvis Green-Ellis tries a toss outside of Hernandez’ block:

Two plays later, the Pats face a 3rd down outside the Dolphins red zone and go to a split back set, with two receivers and Gronkowski flexed wide into the left slot.  On this play, Hernandez is the traditional fullback spot, flanking Brady in the shotgun:

On the next play, the Patriots stay in the 12 package, but use Hernandez as a flanker, wide of Gronkowski on the right side.  The Pats have a balanced set — two receiving options left and two right — but they’re imbalanced by position — both receivers are on the left side of the formation and both tight ends on the right:

On New England’s next series, Hernandez is on the left side, split wide of the split end Deion Branch:

Five plays where the F-back has lined up in five different spots.  He has blocked on running plays.  He’s lined up tight and wide.  Hernandez runs routes in the middle of the field and outside the numbers.  He matches up against corners, safeties and linebackers.  Late in the season, Hernandez lined up as a true fullback and carried the football.  He opened the Broncos playoff game with several carries for big gains.