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Packers fullback Kuhn confident in roster spot

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By Tyler Dunne
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
August 21, 2013

GREEN BAY--To John Kuhn, it’s more myth than full-fledged evolution. The dinosaur that is the NFL fullback still roams in Wisconsin. He wears No. 30, weighs 250 pounds and—again in 2013—likely will hear his name echo through the Lambeau Field bowl again.

Save the sob stories. Kuhn doesn’t want to hear it.

“The fullback dying,” Kuhn said, “I think that’s something somebody threw out there because they saw a couple teams run with just a bunch of tight ends like the old Colts when they had Peyton (Manning) and a couple of other teams tried to do that. But it’s a monkey-see league.

“Last year you saw two teams in the Super Bowl with fullbacks so we might be heading back in the right direction.”

Maybe. Both San Francisco and Baltimore are bare-knuckle brawling teams. Beyond this, Kuhn remains a highly valued commodity in Green Bay. As a lead blocker. As the third-down back. As a physical, yet intelligent one-man hammer in the middle of weekly NFL chess matches

The game is evolving, true. But the comet hasn’t hit Kuhn’s position yet. Certainly not in Green Bay.

Coaches assure there remains a role for Kuhn within the offense.

“Oh yeah, absolutely,” running backs coach Alex Van Pelt said. “You never go in without a fullback. We’re more of a three-wide team right now, a two-tight end team. But there is always a place for the fullback in this offense.”

The question seems warranted. The Packers added a rugged back, Eddie Lacy, capable of earning the tough yard. In the fourth round, the team drafted Johnathan Franklin, hoping the UCLA running back could fill a change-of-pace and/or third-down role. Multi-receiver sets are the norm around here, too.

Yet the forces around Kuhn have not squeezed him out of a job. The Packers are not quite trending toward New England.

While he’s a “gnat” in pass protection, Van Pelt said, the 205-pound Franklin is struggling to get underneath larger, bull-rushing pass rushers. Tight ends who could, hypothetically, replace Kuhn as an H-back have underwhelming. And as Kuhn hints, maybe the Packers are one of those teams that looks to mimic Baltimore and San Francisco.

Listen to Kuhn talk for five, six minutes and it sure sounds like the Packers will incorporate more power running into their offense.

“In years past, people, the media, like to get on our run game a little bit,” Kuhn said. “So we’re looking to put on a good face this year and have you guys support us a little bit.”

After a close examination of their own offense, Kuhn said the Packers “made an emphasis that we’re going to commit” to the ground game in 2013. They saw certain packages they can exploit, packages that require—believe it or not—the classic fullback.

“And it’s a monkey-see kind of league,” Kuhn repeated. “You see some other teams who do things really well and you wonder if we can do those things as well. We’re going to try to give it a shot this year.”

Kuhn played only four snaps in the exhibition opener and then three at St. Louis, numbers Van Pelt cautioned not to over-analyze. Some pass-first offenses may be moonlighting a tight end at fullback, a twist the Patriots popularized with Aaron Hernandez.

That doesn’t mean Green Bay is heading that direction.

Van Pelt said the offense prefers using a fullback—not a tight end—in the backfield next to a running back. Some players in today’s game can do both, he explained, “but having a true fullback is definitely a benefit.” Kuhn’s smarts are valued, too. Only one player on offense (quarterback Aaron Rodgers) has been in Green Bay longer. Thus, Van Pelt added, there is “absolutely not” anyone in the backfield who knows the offense better than Kuhn.

At all positions surrounding the richest quarterback in the game, expect trust to win out. Kuhn is still, by far, Green Bay’s No. 1 security guard in pass protection.

“If you had to put your life on the line for somebody you knew would be on the right guy and be in tune with Aaron and the line,” Van Pelt said, “it’d be John just from his knowledge and experience in the system. Plus, he has the ability as a bigger back to hold up and protect.”

Follow the numbers, the money and it’s not encouraging for Joe Fullback. In 2008, the top 10 rushing teams in the league all utilized fullbacks. And that season, 10 quarterbacks eclipsed 500 pass attempts with only two reaching 600. Last season? Eighteen quarterbacks threw the ball more than 500 times, six more than 600.

The trend toward passing is fast and furious, and constant creativity is a must for today’s offensive masterminds.

And at a very modest $1.8 million base salary, Kuhn is unofficially the third-highest paid fullback in the league behind Seattle’s Michael Robinson ($2.5 million) and San Diego’s Le’Ron McClain ($2.25 million). Teams are not investing in fullbacks. Only three fullbacks were drafted in April—in the fourth, sixth and seventh rounds.

Offensive coordinator Tom Clements, however, declares Kuhn “a very important part of our offense.”

Any decline of the fullback in the NFL could be the result of supply and demand, too. Those spread offenses at the college level aren’t generating fullbacks like they used to.

“There’s not a lot of them out there,” Clements said. “They’re hard to find. Offenses have evolved to more one-back—a lot of them—but you still, at times, will have two backs out there whether it’s short yardage, four-minute offense or goal-line offense. So they’re still a part of the general offense in the NFL.”

Added Kuhn, “The running backs like having a guy in front of them that if there’s a little crack there, maybe we bust that crack open a little wider for him.”

At no point has Kuhn been overly stressed about his NFL employment. He looks around the league, sees the trends and shrugs. He believes you can’t look into the future because it’d muddy the present. For now, the Packers insist they still use a fullback. He’s a fullback who does a variety of things. So flanked by tight ends to his right and running backs to his left—players who could render him expendable elsewhere—Kuhn isn’t panicking.

Along the way, maybe his would role grow, too. Maybe the Packers do evolve in a different sense. The soon-to-be 31-year-old from Shippensburg University isn’t threatened by the other backs. He’s optimistic.

“They look really good this year, so it’s going to be interesting,” he said. “Our run game, it looks like there’s really going to be something there this year.”



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