Going old school: Vikings offense will be a throwback with fullback usage

EAGAN — CJ Ham laughed out loud at the suggestion of wearing a neck roll.

“Nooooo, no neck roll for me,” he said emphatically.

The Minnesota Vikings fullback might not want to sport the look of the 80s and 90s but has an appreciation for the NFL’s bruising blockers of backfields’ past. He name drops Lorenzo Neal and says that running back’s coach Kennedy Polamalu used tape of former Jacksonville and Houston fullback Greg Jones to help him learn the job.

“He was a super athletic fullback who could play tailback too, that was somebody I always looked to,” Ham said. “I actually used him in a video game at running back.”

Back in the I-formation days — which extended through the early 2000s and began their path toward extinction somewhere in the range of 2008-2012 — players like Neal and Jones saw the field as regularly as a No. 3 wide receiver.  When snap count data became available in 2006, their decent had already begun. In ’06, 22 fullbacks were used on 200 or more blocking snaps (per PFF). By 2012, that number dipped to 17 players getting regular usage. Last year only San Francisco’s Kyle Juszcyk and New England’s James Develin saw more than 200 blocking plays. Ham was used on just 70 blocking plays.

Vikings offensive adviser Gary Kubiak wants to change that.

“[Fullback] very important,” Kubiak said following Friday’s walk through. “It gives us a chance to be flexible, we can run a two-back offense, a one-back offense with the same personnel on the field. Both our fullbacks catch the ball very well. C.J. gives us a chance to do some things on third down, too, because he’s got a chance to help you catch the ball and protecting the quarterback.”

Back in 2012, Kubiak’s Texans team used fullback James Casey on 368 blocking snaps, most in the NFL. His offense finished sixth in yards and eighth in points that year.

The advantage, head coach Mike Zimmer says, comes from the ability to force opponents to make a tough decision: Do they keep an extra cornerback on the field and risk Ham blocking him into St. Paul or do they put in another linebacker and risk the Vikings running play-action and finding a mismatch with receivers.

“A lot of it is versatility, you are going to be in two-back formation and typically they are going to have their base [package] on the field so you will have a better idea of where they line up and have an extra blocker at the point of attack as opposed to one-back and have better play-action passes,” Zimmer said.

Tight end Kyle Rudolph, who seemed noticeably happy at the mention of more tight ends and the fullback being used, said that the number of personnel combinations the Vikings can use with Ham in the mix makes it challenging for defenses to get a beat on plays and concepts.

“It makes us tough to defend because as a defense when we have two backs, two tight ends, two backs and two tight ends, we are pretty unpredictable, you don’t know what we’re going to do, we can kind of dictate that,” Rudolph said. “As long as we stay on track from a down-and-distance standpoint, it will allow us to get to favorable personnel packages.”

The advantages are pretty clear. So why don’t teams use fullbacks anymore? Part of the reasons is that they are hard to find.

Not only does a fullback have to fit a certain size requirement — Ham goes at 5-foot-11, 235-pounds, all muscle — but on order to be good at the things fullbacks do, there’s other prerequisites as well, including have a good mind for the game and the hands to make a play in the passing game.

“The better they catch the ball is important otherwise they really load up [on defense] but being smart is important too,” Zimmer said. “You have to be smart, athletic and be able to thump a little bit.”

Ham is all those things. Since making the team through the tryout-to-practice squad route, he has been praised for his intelligence and ability to handle multiple jobs, whether it’s running the ball, pass or run blocking or motioning out to receiver or tight end.

“That’s one thing I’ve always put on myself: Always know what I’m doing at every single position they put me in,” he said. “I don’t want there to be any excuse for me not to be on the field. They throw base personnel and throw me out at wide receiver. I always want to be accountable in that sense.”

Over the last two seasons he has caught 18 passes on 23 targets for 153 yards, good for 8.5 yards per reception. In 37 pass blocking snaps over the past two seasons, he has allowed zero QB pressures (per PFF).

“It’s whatever they ask me to do,” Ham said. “I’m just glad that I’m in the plans and I’m going to have a bigger role in the offense. I’m not exactly sure if that means catching the ball more, blocking more, I’m just happy to be out there.”

With or without the neck roll, he will be out there in 2019.