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I am reading Pat Kirwan's book, Take Your Eye Off the Ball, and he states in Chapter 4 (Ground Rules) that "a [running] back in the I formation is not considered a receiving threat."

Why is this so?

Does it have to do with the types of backs that are used in I-formation (e.g., heavier, less agile, more North-to-South runners)?

Or, is there something about the back's positioning in the I-formation that reduces the probability that he's a receiving threat?

Or, is it some combination of the two?

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He is making a generalization about the power I offense. Generally he is right.

You basically have three pass to run out of this formation for both the fullback and the halfback. You have a basic side screen, you have variations of an out, and you have up and outs. I am not going to write a chapter on each of these but can cover the basics:

  • side screen. Against a deep zone this will work but you still have at least 2 DBs lurking in space. Mainly this would be ran against an undisciplined line crashing upfield too hard. Against man coverage this would get snuffed out with a good disciplined LB. Against a Cover 2 or shallow sink variety defense it is low reward because you could have DBs attacking the screen zone. The biggest problem with the side screen though is the fullback. Basically you are putting one guy on the field that probably serves no purpose and for most purposes the defensive coach will say ignore (remember that your fast pass catching fullbacks are 1 out of 20). The extra defender on the field will be a LB with nothing to do. So he is watching flats and short zones or maybe blitzing. The example in the other answer talks about Tomlinson/Chargers running the screen game out of the I. They did a phenomenal job. But most of the screens were off of play action and they worked because defenses were worried about one of the best runningbacks to play the game. The screens also worked because LT was arguably a top 10 receiving RB of all time. He could do anything in any formation.

  • variations of the out. Really this is probably the most common route out of the I currently. It gives QB a safety valve. Often a defense has their LBs read the fullback and runningback on plays. When LB X is assigned to the FB he reads FB. When FB represents staying in to block LB blitzes. When FB goes out for pass, LB X mirrors him. In almost all cases LB X is more athletic than the FB. LB Z mirroring the RB might not have a matchup advantage but in most cases he will not be in the negative either. Again this works well with deep zones. Man and Cover 2... your RB/FB will get jacked up.

  • up and out. FB/RB travels straight upfield and then option route (most of the time running an out but sometimes sitting down). This is a great route. You are taking away the LBs ability to mirror your RB. They must attack the pass route with the same finesse and discipline of a DB. The linebacker is at a big big disadvantage. This route was the staple route of the greatest show on turf (Rams circa 99-02). It took a full two years before NFL teams could scheme on how to beat it. Not only was its design great but they again had a dominant pass catching threat at RB - Marshall Faulk. They forced teams to zone shallow which puts them in some variation of a Cover 2 and then you have Bruce and Holt running 20 yard ins all day. But this is a high reward high risk route. It often takes so much time to develop that the RB never makes it out of the break. Remember that if he is running the route he isn't pass protecting. Also this is given that the RB can clear the line. D-lineman are much more disciplined now at holding the RB (legal or not) as they try to sprint through the line. This is probably the biggest reason you don't see teams with shifty backs running this variation 10 times a game.

So given the limited route tree, the putting the FB on the field that adds another defender but little threat, and the better disciplined LBs/DL are now (they are just a lot more used to passing where in the 80s power I passing caught them by surprise more) really limits what you can do out of the I. If you have a tactical I advantage for the run though you can still pass out of the I and some of those might go to your FB/RB but that doesn't mean it was an optimal play. Really the only way for a team to schematically beat another team with I FB/RB threats is to either have a hall of fame type RB or to have a 1 out of 20 shifty FB. This is why you have seen so many teams in recent years get rid of FB position or to line up a TE (Miami is an example) and sometimes another RB at FB so that the receiving threat is always there.

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I don't think I agree with Pat Kirwan here at all, unless you have more context for that quote. Anyone who watched LaDainian Tomlinson play knows that a running back in the I formation is a capable receiver. The Chargers used the I formation and standard Shotgun almost exclusively, and very frequently ran play-action passes where the RB is a significant target.

I would guess his comments are primarily along the lines related to the latter reasons from your question, though; the I form is certainly not a formation for a regular passing play to the RB, given the RB has only two or three seconds to get significantly downfield in a non-play action passing play; given his position far behind the line (4-5 yards back) and centered (so another 3-4 yards at least from the outside of the tackle box), it's not a great position to go downfield from. Halfback screens and play action passes work well here, but regular routes don't.

It's also simply not a formation commonly used by heavy RB passing teams; they'll use the Pro formation (both backs behind the QB 2-3 yards back, one on each side), which still has significant ability to run the ball but also has a much quicker route to beyond the line of scrimmage. I suppose your former reason then has some truth, but from the other direction: you use I formation more often if you plan on doing less designed pass plays to the halfback.

But I'm ultimately not sure that Kirwan's correct here in the modern day; between play action passing and screens, there's plenty of action involved in the halfback passing game nowadays. Even 'big' runners can still be good receivers.

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