Santa Clara, Calif.
By any modern standard, Kyle Juszczyk shouldn’t be playing in the NFL. He went to Harvard, a school that was important in football about a century ago. And he plays fullback, a position that was important when teams ran the wishbone toward goal posts that were planted at the front of the end zone.
But there’s one team that feels differently. A few years ago, the San Francisco 49ers didn’t just sign Juszczyk. They made him the highest-paid player in the entire league relative to other players at the same position. Juszczyk makes more money than the second- and third-highest paid fullbacks combined and carried the ball a grand total of three times this year.
He also explains the unusual way the 49ers, who play the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship, run their offense. It’s not so much that they like to run the ball. It’s how they run the ball, using formations and personnel that have been virtually eliminated from modern playbooks—but with distinctly modern twists. To make it all work, they rely on a guy who plays a position that’s bordering on extinction because it’s antithetical to almost every morsel of progressive football strategy.
“I take tremendous pride in that,” Juszczyk says. “It’s awesome that we buck that trend and go in the opposite direction of where the rest of the league is going.”
Juszczyk isn’t just another guy from Harvard with an economics degree making an absurd salary only years after graduating. He’s an outlier because he entered his chosen field, professional football, at a time when it has never been worse to be Kyle Juszczyk.
Juszczyk was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 2013, right when NFL teams were rapidly devaluing fullbacks. There was once a time when the most fearsome athlete in the NFL was a mustachioed guy who looked like a plumber. But teams aren’t looking for the next Larry Csonka anymore.
These days teams are running the ball less, throwing the ball more and utilizing more athletic personnel who can spread the field in a way that squat backs, mainly utilized for their blocking, aren’t known for doing. In 2011, there were 8,595 snaps with at least two running backs on the field, according to Stats LLC. This season, that number was 4,280. It plummeted by more than half in less than a decade.
In this world, the 49ers are an exception. In 2017, right after hiring Kyle Shanahan as coach and John Lynch as general manager, they signed Juszczyk to the largest fullback contract in league history, valued at more than $5 million per season. They filled their hole at fullback long before they traded for Jimmy Garoppolo to fill their hole at quarterback.
The 49ers, like the Ravens before them, valued Juszczyk’s versatility. Although technically a fullback, he played tight end and H-back in college, giving the 49ers the flexibility to motion him out and place him in any number of roles. It allows San Francisco to completely change the way the offense might look without changing the actual players on the field, a tactic that can prevent the defense from substituting and frustrate defenders schematically.
They take simple formations but motion and shift more than any other team in the NFL, which wouldn’t happen without Juszczyk’s unusual malleability. “Kyle, to some extent, has transformed fullbacks,” says Tim Murphy, Harvard’s coach.
The 49ers, in this era when the I-formation feels like a bygone relic, used “21” personnel—two backs and one tight end—on 26.7% of their snaps this season. That was the highest rate in the league and worlds beyond other teams: 14 teams used such formations on fewer than 5% of their offensive plays. The Rams used it on 0% of their plays.
Juszczyk played the second-highest number of snaps among fullbacks this season, a remarkable feat given that he missed a quarter of the season while injured. And the clearest indication of San Francisco’s belief in his anachronistic value came in the team’s biggest game of the season. In the divisional round against the Vikings, Juszczyk played 70% of the offensive snaps. That was his highest rate of the season, and on those 50 plays he managed not to touch the ball a single time: he finished with zero catches and zero carries.
The 49ers, in that game, showcased their affinity for running the football. On one touchdown drive, they ran eight plays—all runs. Only the Ravens ran the ball more often this year, but Baltimore did so with modern looks and a record-breaking speedster at quarterback, Lamar Jackson. San Francisco did so out of atypically traditional formations, often featuring Juszczyk bouncing all over the field.
“I don’t see anybody who does it like he does it,” said 49ers guard Laken Tomlinson.
On most of the 49ers’ big plays against Minnesota, Juszczyk was the invisible hand who drove the play without touching the ball. When Garoppolo hit Emmanuel Sanders for a 22-yard gain on the 49ers opening-drive touchdown, Juszczyk made it happen by single-handedly blocking Danielle Hunter, the Vikings defensive lineman who has the third most sacks in the NFL over the last two seasons.
When they ran the ball eight consecutive times for the score, Juszczyk was on the field for all eight, moving between the backfield, the line of scrimmage and even out wide. “It looks so different to the defense when it’s really just the same thing to us,” said 49ers tackle Mike McGlinchey. “It really, really messes with a defense.”
Overall this season, Juszczyk ran the ball a grand total of three times for 7 yards. He caught 20 passes for 239 yards—an impressive enough rate that forces defenses to account for him when he motions out, even if he’s only thrown to sparingly. Back in December, he caught a touchdown pass just moments after recovering a fumbled punt—he also plays on special teams—and taking it to the 1-yard-line.
There have been times when people have scoffed at Juszczyk’s rich contract. He makes many multiples of his highest-paid peers, but there’s one group of people that doesn’t seem to mind: the 49ers. They’re one win from the Super Bowl.
Share Your Thoughts
Do you think NFL teams should go back to using fullbacks more? Why or why not? Join the discussion.
Write to Andrew Beaton at email@example.com
Copyright ©2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8