By Vic Carucci, Senior Editor
The interviewer talks about the NFL being a “quarterback-driven league,” and that with more quarterbacks showing the ability to make game-breaking runs, the importance of running backs is steadily fading into oblivion. Martin, one of the greatest backs in the game’s history, grudgingly agrees, although he does offer some half-hearted optimism that players who do what he did will one day re-emerge into the spotlight because of the game’s cyclical nature.
You hear this, and you can’t help but think about what the sentiment means to the player whose job is to effectively serve as the running back’s body guard: the fullback. If the running back position is going the way of the compact disk, then what does that say about the fullback?
It says that the role, while still one of the more thankless in the NFL, has to evolve into something different. And that’s exactly what has happened with the Cleveland Browns.
The traditional, battering-ram approach to fullback has no place in the offense of coach Rob Chudzinski and offensive coordinator Norv Turner. The fullback they want must be much more versatile. He still has to be able to block effectively for the run, but he also needs to excel in pass protection and pass receiving while also having the skills of a running back. In addition, he needs to make a contribution to special teams, something the traditional fullback doesn’t do.
That’s why the Browns’ new fullback is a former running back, Chris Ogbonnaya. That’s also why Owen Marecic, a traditional fullback who had held the job since joining the Browns in 2011, was waived on Tuesday.
To say that Marecic’s departure brought an official end to the competition for the starting spot at the position would be an overstatement. From the start of offseason workouts, Ogbonnaya convinced the Browns’ decision-makers that he was the perfect fit for the job. He only enhanced his case through training camp and the first three games of the preseason by helping to open holes for Trent Richardson and the rest of the team’s running backs.
“I think that playing running back has definitely helped,” Ogbonnaya said of the transition to fullback. “You know where you need to be when you’re running the football, so with that, you’re able to complement those skills and those attributes into the fullback position.”
In the passing game, as well as in the running game.
Ogbonnaya understands the nuances of picking up the blitz, which is the most critical role for a back that doesn’t primarily touch the ball.
“You want to keep your quarterback upright,” he says. “That’s something I take a lot of pride in. I’ve always taken pride in it since I was in college (Texas).”
At 6-foot and 225 pounds, Ogbonnaya is bigger and stronger than he has been at any point in his four NFL seasons. He has added more muscle to his upper body in order to better withstand the rigors of opening holes and taking on pass-rushers.
The position change also has caused Ogbonnaya to undergo a change of attitude.
“I think I’ve gotten tougher,” he says. “It takes a lot of effort. It’s a man’s job. But that just goes back to the coaches, putting a little faith in me, a little trust and working on my technique.
“I’m still working on that stuff and doing the little things whether it’s blocking drills or sled work or whatever just to get better. I’m going to continue to get better and keep working at it.”
Even if playing fullback is the most thankless of NFL occupations.
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