KANSAS CITY -- Anthony Sherman was certain his position should not be considered a relic of football's past.
The Chiefs Pro Bowl fullback stepped to the podium at Arrowhead Stadium on Friday and was asked about his role and its future in a game that seems to be getting faster and more pass-happy by the year.
"Three of the four teams left have a fullback and use them on a consistent basis," said Sherman, who graduated North Attleboro High and attended UConn. "Maybe you want to be like us. I don't know."
His numbers aren't wrong.
Sherman played 98 offensive snaps this year for the Chiefs and was the highest-graded fullback in football this season, per Pro Football Focus. New England's James Develin played 399 snaps in 2018, coming in second in terms of playing time at the position to San Francisco's do-it-all weapon Kyle Juszczyk. New Orleans deployed fullback Zach Line on 226 snaps, fourth-most among fullbacks.
Those are three of the top four offenses in football -- the Rams are the other -- and they all have room for fullbacks in their scheme. They also have creative offensive minds pulling the controls who understand when to use the fullback, and how a player at that spot can complement some of the other things they're trying to accomplish.
What's fascinating is that it's the Patriots -- a team that re-wrote record books over a decade ago because of their passing game, a team that has been as forward-thinking offensively as any -- who have turned back the clock and used their fullback more than any other team left in the postseason.
On 29 percent of their snaps, the Patriots went with two backs and one tight end (21 personnel) this year. That put them second in that category, behind only the Niners (41 percent), and it's up from their 21-personnel usage in 2017 (24 percent). In 2016, the Patriots used 21 personnel on 16 percent of their snaps, almost half their 2018 percentage.
Bill Belichick's team, it seems, has been building to this. In the latter portion of their schedule, it wanted to get tougher at the line of scrimmage. It wanted to prove it could run the ball when everyone in the stadium knew it would. Since New England's bye week, it's utilized "21" on 35 percent of its snaps.
But even before that, the Patriots seemed to be willing to go heavier more often. In the offseason, they traded their No. 1 wideout for a first-round pick used on an offensive lineman. They drafted a running back with their other first-round choice. They signed their run-blocking dynamo of a right-guard to a lucrative, long-term extension.
Did Belichick sense a market inefficiency? Did he believe that the best way to separate from the pack was to fortify his offense's running game because others treated that facet of the sport as an afterthought?
Did he feel like defenses were getting too light as they focused on defending the pass? (If so, last weekend's Divisional Round win over over the Chargers and their defensive back-heavy alignments was a check in his favor.)
Or did he sense that this had to happen for this particular iteration of his team? That because of the talent level of his wide-receiver and tight-end groups, the Patriots would have to move the ball on the ground if they were to get to where they wanted to go? Was keeping a 41-year-old quarterback upright with more run plays part of Belichick's thought process?
Hard to say. Could've been a combination of all of those factors. But if you look at the NFL's Final Four, the Patriots aren't the only ones who buck the league's pass-happy trends. It goes beyond fullback usage.
Three of the four teams remaining -- New Orleans (fourth), Los Angeles (seventh) and New England (eighth) -- were in the top eight in terms run rate in 2018. And all three ran more than they passed on first down, ranking within the league's top-nine in terms of run rate on first down.
So maybe Sherman was right. Maybe the role of the running game -- and, by extension, the fullback -- isn't dying. But Sunday's AFC title game feels like it will have a say in just how well a relatively old-school offensive attack can work in today's NFL.
Will it be Kansas City's variable passing game, its forward-thinking concepts and its young quarterbacking prototype that wins in the cold in January?
Or will it be the team that likes its two-back packages, the team that over its last four games has nearly split its number of run and pass plays (52 percent pass, 48 percent run) that moves on?
The answer could come early since the drawback of carrying the identity the Patriots do into Arrowhead Stadium is that they don't seem to have the tools necessary to create explosive pass plays through the air when thrust into obvious passing situations. They don't seem built to play from behind.
But if the tools they have -- a grind-it-out running game with a heaping helping of fullback play, a devastating play-action passing game -- are enough to get them the lead? They may never give it back.
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