FOXBORO, Mass. — Kevin Faulk's season-ending knee injury has sparked plenty of discussion about third-down running backs in the last week.
Some believe Faulk is the greatest to ever take on that role. Others know he's at least among the elite. Regardless of his all-time ranking, his value to the Patriots' offense has been tremendous over the last decade.
However, to get a better understanding of the third-down back position, it made sense to ask New England's greatest football encyclopedia. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick gave a little history on the birth of third-down running backs.
"I'd say it was definitely with [Joe] Gibbs in Washington," Belichick said. "He always kind of had a third-down back. He had [John] Riggins and Joe Washington, and then it was Kelvin Bryant. When we were at the Giants, we had Tony Galbreath and [Dave] Meggett, but I remember [the position started] definitely in the '80s. I'm not saying there wasn't one before that, but that kind of third-down, specialty back that didn't play on first and second down was, I think, probably the late '70s to '80s when people started using nickel defenses.
"When I first came in the league in '75, there wasn't a lot of nickel defense. George Allen ran a little bit of it with the Redskins, but most of the time, that was just a defensive back that replaced a linebacker and then they played all the same stuff. They just had a [defensive back] playing linebacker on longer-yardage situations. But then that evolved into offenses taking the tight end off the field and putting a third receiver on, or taking a back off the field and putting a third receiver on. And then that led to five defensive backs, six defensive backs.
"I want to say with the Giants in '81, '82, '83, we barely even probably played nickel. The last-minute-of-the-game kind of thing, but it was minimal. By the end of the '80s, that was a big sub [package]. Everybody was in sub and the multiple receivers came in, you had the run-and-shoot offenses. That was like mid-80s, '86, '87, '88, Mouse Davis and Jim Jones and all them, and then you had a lot of multiple-receiver sets like Joe Gibbs did at the Redskins with [Gary] Clark, [Art] Monk and [Ricky] Sanders and teams like that. It definitely evolved in that decade — the popularity of it anyway. I'm not sure when it exactly first started. That's my recollection."
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