© AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Carolina Panthers running backs, from left, Cameron Artis-Payne, Mike Tolbert and Brandon Wegher participate in drills during a practice in preparation for the Super Bowl 50 football game Thursday Feb. 4, 2016 in San Jose, Calif.
Mike Tolbert is the best at a position that's going out of style.
Fullbacks are a dying breed in the pass-happy NFL. Ten teams didn't even have one on their rosters this season.
Tolbert plays for a club that uses its fullback more than anyone else and he's a big part of Carolina's success. The two-time All-Pro had 256 yards rushing, 154 yards receiving and four touchdowns combined this season.
“There's not a lot of us,” Tolbert said. “We pride ourselves on being able to do more than just one thing. More than just block, we like to catch the ball, we like to run the ball, we pass-protect, we do it all - even on special teams. I think that's what has kept me around so long, but I hope it keeps me around for a lot longer.”
Tolbert played 38.3 per cent of Carolina's snaps, down from 58.2 per cent two years ago. The workload is declining even for teams who employ a fullback.
More teams are running spread offences and operating out of the shotgun formation for most of the game, so they don't want to waste a roster spot on a fullback. The Cardinals, Bengals, Bears, Broncos, Chargers, Dolphins, Jaguars, Colts, Rams and the Eagles didn't list one on their roster.
Some teams will use a tight end as an H-back or they'll motion someone into the backfield when they want a lead blocker. A few teams have even used defensive linemen to block in short-yardage situations.
“That's what makes us unique,” Panthers defensive tackle Kawann Short said. “A lot of teams do a lot of things different because they can't stop old-fashioned football. Mike Tolbert, if you have him on your team, you've got to have him at fullback. You better respect him as well.”
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At 5-foot-9 and 243 pounds, Tolbert looks like a prototypical fullback. The 30-year-old began his career as an undrafted free agent with San Diego in 2008 after playing at Coastal Carolina. Tolbert had a career-high 182 carries, 735 yards rushing and 11 TDs in 2010 for the Chargers.
He joined the Panthers in 2012 and has helped form a three-headed rushing attack along with Cam Newton and Jonathan Stewart.
“Sometimes he comes in the huddle and he calls the play and then he'll hit me in the stomach, 'Here we go Tubby, let's get it,”' Tolbert said of Newton. “It's fun. We're not selfish over that. As long as we (score), we don't care who is in, we're celebrating.”
NFL Network analyst Heath Evans played fullback for 10 seasons from 2001-10. He blames college coaches for not developing traditional fullbacks because of the influx of spread offences.
“If I was a head coach, I'd have a Tolbert or (John) Kuhn,” Evans said. “But you can't have a guy who can only block. He has to wreak havoc on special teams, run short-yardage downs and be versatile. Seven of the final eight playoff teams last year had fullbacks who played 25 per cent of the snaps. The best teams are the toughest teams who can hunker down and get the tough yards.”