Fullbacks were once the centerpieces of the National Football League. Any discussion of the greatest players in NFL history should start with Jim Brown, Bronco Nagurski, and Marion Motley. NFL Films was built upon the slow-motion Super Bowl sprints of Larry Csonka, Franco Harris, and John Riggins. But it’s been 24 years since a fullback led the league in rushing. Now, the position is synonymous with anonymity and extinction.
The NFL’s perpetual shift toward a faster, pass-heavier game has taken the ball out of the fullback’s hands. In 1989, Christian Okoye churned 370 carries into 1,480 yards. In 2012, there were 239 carries and 806 yards by all NFL fullbacks combined. Our Performance Based Value study revealed that paying a premium for a part-time blocker doesn’t give the best return-on-investment. Some teams don’t even carry a fullback on their roster anymore. So does this mean the position is dead? Hardly.
As Adrian Peterson eclipsed the 2,000-yard mark last season, he certainly benefited from having not just one, but two of PFF’s highest-graded fullbacks blocking in front of him. As the Baltimore Ravens marched to a Super Bowl, they continually leaned on the ever-reliable All-Pro Vonta Leach. And as the New York Giants hoisted the Lombardi Trophy the season before, they owed plenty of thanks to the strong play of Henry Hynoski. It was in that playoff run that the rookie fullback solidified his popular nickname, but it was his follow-up in 2012 that made him PFF’s newest Secret Superstar.
There are some fullbacks who were star halfbacks in college, but switched positions to keep their NFL dreams alive. Hynoski is not one of those players. “Hank the Tank” (one of the many nicknames he picked up over the years) seemed destined to be a fullback the minute he arrived at the University of Pittsburgh. With a style so physical that some suggested playing him at linebacker, Hynoski carried the ball just 37 times in his college career and instead spent the vast majority of his snaps opening holes for more heralded halfbacks. However, even without the ball in his hands, his potential was clearly seen by NFL scouts. An injury during the Scouting Combine left Hynoski undrafted, but the Giants signed him as a successor to Madison Hedgecock.
As the only fullback for much of training camp, Hynoski quickly endeared himself to the Giants faithful, who soon dubbed him with yet another moniker: “The Hynocerous.” But through the next 17 weeks his new nickname was his biggest highlight. The Giants finished the regular season with 89.2 rushing yards per game, the worst mark in the NFL. In the five games that Hynoski missed with a neck injury, that average dipped to 82.6. If this hinted at the importance that the fullback had in New York’s rushing success, that link was only confirmed once the playoffs began.
The Giants’ rushing attack, impotent in the regular season, finally came to life in the postseason. New York gained a season-high 172 yards on the ground in a wild-card victory over the Atlanta Falcons, and went on to average 116.5 yards in their march to the Lombardi Trophy. What brought about this turnaround? Start with Hynoski. After a -0.8 run block grade in 11 regular season games, the rookie compiled a +2.0 mark in the playoffs.
Everyone remembers Kyle Williams’ overtime fumble in the NFC Championship, but few recall the three subsequent Ahmad Bradshaw runs that picked up 18 yards, turning a Lawrence Tynes nail-biter into a chip shot. On all three plays, Hynoski led the way. On 2nd-and-2 from the San Francisco 49ers’ 16-yard line, he met Patrick Willis in the hole and stood him up, clearing a path to the game’s final first down.
Hynoski saved the best game of his rookie season for the biggest stage. He earned a +2.7 overall grade in the Super Bowl by frequently stonewalling New England Patriots linebackers Brandon Spikes and Jerod Mayo at the point of attack. He also tacked on 19 receiving yards, one missed tackle, and a critical fumble recovery in the third quarter that led to a Giants field goal. When the confetti fell onto the Lucas Oil Stadium turf, Hynoski could be proud that his turnaround helped spark his team’s championship run.
The trust Hynoski earned in January paid off in September, as the Giants coaches leaned further on their young fullback in the 2012 season. In Week 2, when Bradshaw was out with an injury, Hynoski was the lone halfback in the Giants’ two-minute drill. While Andre Brown and David Wilson were both available, Tom Coughlin trusted his second-year fullback to protect Eli Manning, and for good reason. In 94 pass block snaps over the past two seasons, Hynoski surrendered just one quarterback pressure. That September contest was also when Hynoski received his first NFL carry. He had five rushing attempts in 2012, which doesn’t seem like much until you notice that Hedgecock had one carry over four seasons in coordinator Kevin Gilbride’s offense.
While Hynoski’s offensive responsibilities expanded, it was his performance in his primary blocking role that helped pull the Giants’ running game from the doldrums of 2011. As Hynoski built up the fifth-highest run-block grade of any fullback, earning a nod on the PFF Mid-Season All-Pro Team, the Giants compiled the 14th-most rushing yards in the league. New York had 18 rushing touchdowns in 2012 — Hynoski was a lead blocker on 15 of them. Nearly every time that Bradshaw, Brown, or Wilson crossed the goal line, there behind them, pulling himself off a pile and raising his hands in the air, was The Hynocerous.
The cherry on top of a great season came in the fourth quarter of Week 17, with the Giants wrapping up a blowout victory over the Philadelphia Eagles. On a 1st-and-goal from inside the Eagles’ 2-yard line, Hynoski released into the flat on a pass route. Manning rolled out and hit his fullback just as he crossed the pylon. What then ensued was one of the more memorable touchdown dances of the 2012 season. YouTube it now, we’ll wait. It was a fitting celebration for The Hynocerous’ first touchdown since high school.
Life Without Hank
Of course the damper on this story came last week, when Hynoski suffered a torn MCL in the first practice of the Giants’ organized team activities. He has undergone surgery and is targeting a Week 1 return to the field, but there’s no telling when and how he’ll recover from this injury. The Giants have already worked out some veteran fullbacks, but none of them have ever had the success that Hynoski has already shown in his short career. Versatile tight end Bear Pascoe seems to be the current backup plan, but he hasn’t finished a season with a run-blocking grade better than +0.8.
Without Hynoski, the Giants will miss a reliable pass protector with a growing role in the offense. Most importantly, they’ll miss one of the best run-blocking fullbacks in the league. So closely tied to his team’s success, The Hynocerous has shown us that the fullback is not yet extinct in the NFL. Let’s hope that his days of charging, and dancing, are far from over.
Follow Pete on Twitter: @PFF_Pete