INDIANAPOLIS – For nine of 12 games this season, Indianapolis has had a true fullback on its roster.
While the role never has left the offense, the presence of a performer specifically at that position has been rare for many years.
Indianapolis entered the 2011 season with the intent of a heavier emphasis on its running attack. On September 4, the Colts claimed Chris Gronkowski off waivers from Dallas.
When Gronkowski entered the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center it could be understood if he had been considered an oddity by those who observed the team for years.
It would take an ardent Colts follower to recall the true fullbacks the club has used over the past 13 or 14 seasons – Detron Smith, Tom Lopienski, Jim Finn, Luke Lawton.
Indianapolis never deleted the philosophy of the fullback from its attack. Like other teams, though, the concept was filled in past seasons more by a second tight end or H-Back, or perhaps by a player doubling-up from another position.
The Colts have used multiple tight ends through the years such as Ken Dilger, Marcus Pollard, Dallas Clark, Joe Dean Davenport, Bryan Fletcher, Ben Utecht, Gijon Robinson and Brody Eldridge in their diverse attack. Some were used in H-Back roles to account for the fullback position.
The practice of not having a true fullback on the roster was not something specific just to Indianapolis. The presence of H-Backs and other types of players was seen elsewhere, too.
"It might partly be because those guys (true fullbacks) are hard to find, those that can take on the physical responsibility that position requires and do it consistently week in and week out," said Head Coach Jim Caldwell. "Oftentimes teams have found themselves using a fullback then due to injuries having to get out that offensive set because they don't have two (on roster). They're very rare, very tough to find.
"In our case this year it's been a situation where we wanted to run the ball a little bit more. Then, there were a couple of guys available who were big, strong and smart as well. They were able to adapt to what we do and they fit in nicely. (Ryan) Mahaffey, (Jerome) Felton and (Chris) Gronkowski have all been very, very valuable additions to our team at this stage."
Gronkowski was active for the first seven games before getting hurt and being placed on injured reserve. The club went three weeks before adding fullbacks Ryan Mahaffey and Jerome Felton in consecutive weeks.
Gronkowski did not carry the ball in any of his appearances, but he did find action on the field. Mahaffey made an acrobatic catch against Carolina, but he later exited the game with a concussion. He missed the New England game. Felton took up for Mahaffey and started at New England. He had a seven-yard reception against the Patriots.
During the club's tenure in Indianapolis, there have been some recognizable names at fullback. Players such as Randy McMillan, George Wonsley, Albert Bentley, Anthony Johnson, Roosevelt Potts, Clif Groce and Zack Crockett played significantly.
Smith, Lawton, Finn and Lopienski had their tenures, too. Lopienski caught a two-yard touchdown pass from Peyton Manning at Kansas City on January 11, 2004 in the Divisional Playoffs. Lawton caught a shovel pass in the fourth quarter against Jacksonville on December 2, 2007 in what amounted to the deciding score in a 28-25 win. Lawton's reception stands as the only regular-season touchdown pass from Manning to a true fullback. Manning has thrown 398 touchdown passes to players at other positions.
On one of the more noteworthy plays in the team's era, a surprise player lined up at fullback. When the team broke the huddle at home on December 26, 2004 in the third quarter of a game against San Diego running back James Mungro was asked to take the role of fullback. Indianapolis was trying to erase a 24-9 deficit and Manning stood at 47 touchdown passes on the season. Beating the Chargers was paramount, but getting a touchdown pass would tie Manning with Dan Marino (1984) for the most touchdown passes ever in a season. After the huddle broke, James switched positions with Mungro at fullback to give him the chance to become a historical footnote. Manning got the snap and hit Mungro with the touchdown pass that tied Marino's NFL record. Mungro became that instant footnote. Indianapolis eventually won in overtime, while Manning threw another touchdown to set the mark.
Recently, defensive tackle Eric Foster played the role in the Indianapolis offense. His backfield efforts never reached the moment of that 2004 game, though he was used in goal-line and short-yardage situations.
Foster's presence and athletic ability contributed to no fullback being used for a roster spot, but the thinking changed this year as the club deepened its commitment to run the ball.
"We've become a little more of a run-oriented team of late," said Caldwell. "We've been searching hard for those kinds of individuals (Gronkowski, Mahaffey, Felton). (In past seasons) we were a one-back team. That's what we were. We were not a two-back team and used two backs sparingly, only in short-yardage and goal-line. It didn't make a whole lot of sense to have a guy on your roster full-time when you were only going to use him four or five plays during the course of a game. That's what we always battled, 'Is it worth it. We're probably better off getting another tight end.' That's what we battled over the years. Now, it's changed a little bit. We do run the ball a little bit more. We've always had the package in place and we've always had the guy, but we had not used the two-back set as much as we have this year."
As for Mahaffey, he is hoping to return to action this Sunday at Baltimore. He joined the Ravens as an undrafted free agent in training camp and spent the first 10 weeks of the season there on the practice squad before Indianapolis called. Mahaffey is happy to fill the fullback role.
"I wasn't completely familiar with the offense before now but when I came in, they said they wanted to run the ball and were going to use a fullback," said Mahaffey. "I was happy to come here. I was really happy they gave me a call. … I know they've been using a fullback the last couple of weeks. As long as there's a role to be filled, I'm ecstatic to be here."