clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Normal Rules of Football Analytics Don’t Apply to Derrick Henry

Modern football wisdom suggests that running the ball is less valuable than ever. Except, apparently, in the case of the Titans star—whose blend of size, power, and speed is unlike anything the NFL has ever seen.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The scientific formula for momentum is mass times velocity. It’s the Derrick Henry equation.

Henry taught his equation to the Patriots over and over again on Saturday, powering the Titans to a 20-13 win and handing New England its earliest playoff loss in a decade. He ran for 182 yards on 34 carries—more carries than any player had recorded in a game this season, more rushing yards than any player had tallied in a playoff game since 2008, and more rushing yards than the Pats had allowed to a single player in a playoff game in franchise history.

New England entered the wild-card round with the league’s no. 1 scoring defense, a unit that intercepted more passes and allowed fewer touchdowns than anyone. Behind Henry, the Titans simply waltzed around the obstacles that group presented, attempting just 16 passes for 71 yards. No team had won a game with so few passing yards this season, and no team had won a playoff game with so few passing yards since 2010.

For most of Henry’s first four seasons in the NFL, the Heisman Trophy winner was largely considered an afterthought. In 2016 and 2017, he was the backup to an aging DeMarco Murray. In 2018, he became the Titans’ starter, but still split carries with the less productive Dion Lewis. Henry even started out weakly in 2019. For the first 56 games of his NFL career, Henry rushed for 100 yards just five times. He was talked about among fantasy owners really only when they were looking for a mid-tier RB2.

Since Week 10 of this season, though, Henry has hit the 100-yard mark in six of the seven games he’s played. He rattled off four consecutive 100-yard performances—all in Tennessee wins—before racking up 211 yards and three touchdowns in a playoff-clinching Week 17 victory over the Texans.

After Week 9, Henry was 10th on the NFL’s rushing list, 250 yards behind Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook. On the strength of his 211-yard Week 17 outing, Henry took the title of league rushing champ. But he did more than just elevate his stats. Entering Week 10, the Titans seemed dead in the water after a 4-5 start. They’re 6-2 since, and have now knocked off the greatest dynasty in football history. Much of the credit for that turnaround has gone to Ryan Tannehill, the quarterback who took charge of the offense in Week 6 and finished as the NFL’s leader in passer rating. But Tennessee’s 2019 turnaround more closely coincides with Henry’s transformation from just another running back into an unstoppable force of nature.

If Henry is the player he was down the stretch, he’s the best running back in the league. That might not sound like much in an era when efficient passing has replaced power running, but Henry uses his pure brawn to devastating effect. He makes the case that an offense based on bulldozing defenders can work—so long as your running back is Derrick Henry.

Henry runs in the way that Jeeps drive in commercials. We see a Jeep in some treacherous terrain—mountains, blockfields, deserts, icy wastelands, Mordor. The four-wheel drive kicks into gear and the vehicle powers over some rock that would tear my Prius asunder. Normally people drive with a purpose—to get from Point A to Point B. Not in Jeep commercials. It’s not clear why the Jeep needs to cross these craggy plains of death. But whoever is driving would be unhappy cruising down regular, boulderless roads. Or maybe the car would itself be unhappy.

Derrick Henry is similar. He could run through a wide-open hole created by Tennessee’s brilliant offensive line. But it’s not about getting from Point A to Point B. The first downs and touchdowns are incidental. Henry seems happiest when he’s powering over defenders who are standing in his path.

At 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds, Henry is the biggest running back in the NFL, in terms of both height and weight. (If you want to split hairs, a few fullbacks are heavier. That said, the majority of NFL fullbacks are lighter than Henry is.) Dating back to 2000, there has been only one running back taller than Henry to attend the NFL combine: the 6-foot-4 Brandon Jacobs.

But Henry is not just a giant; this truck also goes from zero to 60 in virtually no time. There has been only one NFL running back heavier than Henry to post a faster 40-yard dash time (former Atlanta Falcons back T.J. Duckett). And Duckett, at 6 feet even, is 3 inches shorter than Henry. Saying that Henry is one of a kind is not an exaggeration. There has never been an NFL running back this tall, this big, and this fast.

You’d expect a massive hunk of a running back to be good at running through contact, and Henry is. This season he led the NFL in yards after contact (973), was second in yards after contact per attempt (3.2), and was third in broken tackles (29). But what makes Henry so distinctive is that he’s not just a mountain of muscle bursting into a pile. While other big backs have been short-yardage specialists, Henry is more of a long-gain specialist. Since entering the league in 2016, he has seven rushing touchdowns of more than 50 yards. No other running back even has seven of 30-plus yards. In 2018, Henry had a 99-yard rushing score, which, as logic dictates, is tied for the longest in football history. Henry is one of the few players who can power past linemen and linebackers at the line of scrimmage and then outrun defensive backs chasing him in the open field.

Henry holds the national career high school rushing record, breaking a mark set by Ken Hall, a single-wing quarterback from Texas, in the 1950s. National career high school records are notoriously difficult to break, for obvious reasons. Do you remember being in ninth grade? Did you ever try to beat up seniors? Probably not. They were like a different species.

To set the national career high school rushing record, you not only have to play varsity football as an underclassman, but you also have to dominate. Well, here is Henry as a high school sophomore. (He’s the big guy.)

Henry may have looked 28 when he was in his teens, but his dominance had room to grow. In his senior year at Yulee High School in Florida, he rushed for 4,261 yards and 55 touchdowns. He ran for a minimum of 189 yards in every game, topping out with a 45-carry, 510-yard, six-touchdown outing against Jacksonville’s Andrew Jackson High. Here is a highlight video from his senior season. It’s nine minutes long, and in it Henry gets tackled a total of seven times.

Yulee ran 630 offensive plays in the 2012 season; 462 were carries by Henry. Normally, I’d be furious at a high school coach for exposing a young athlete to so many possibilities for injury. But watching the tape, I have a different question: Why did the Hornets throw the ball 86 times?

As NFL fans, we’re used to looking out on a field and seeing the running back as the smallest guy. Offensive linemen are often small planets; wide receivers are regularly tall sprinters; linebackers are 250-pound balls of muscle; even quarterbacks are sometimes 6-foot-6. Running backs are regular-sized speedsters who can weave between the big boys. On Henry’s high school tape, though, he’s the biggest player on the field. It looks like Nintendo made a football sequel to Mario Tennis and Mario Golf. And in this version Henry is Bowser.

The domination continued at Alabama. As a freshman, Henry was third on the depth chart behind T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake, but averaged 10.9 yards per carry in the limited times he touched the ball. In that season’s Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma, he took a screen pass for a 61-yard touchdown, breaking through a pack of Sooners around the line of scrimmage and outrunning the safeties into the end zone. Pablo Viruega, who announces college football games for ESPN Deportes, shouted out “¡El Tractorcito!” as Henry burst into the end zone. Henry has never needed another nickname: Calling Henry a human-sized tractor remains the best way to summarize him.

As a junior, Henry rushed for at least 200 yards in four games, and fewer than 100 yards in five games—three of which were nonconference contests in which Henry was subbed out early. He had 271 yards in the all-important Iron Bowl against Auburn, 189 yards in the SEC title game against Florida, and 158 yards with three touchdowns in the national championship against Clemson. Before that Clemson game, former Bama running back and fellow Heisman winner Mark Ingram joined the Crimson Tide on the field for the coin toss. Ingram looked like a high-schooler; Henry looked like a pro.

In high school, Henry was a god. In college, Henry was a god. Then in the pros, Henry was overlooked. He was the second running back off the board in the 2016 draft, which in the past could have made him a top-five pick. In 2016, however, he went 45th, 41 spots behind Ezekiel Elliott. The Titans didn’t really make Henry their feature back until this season.

And I kind of get it. I believe in analytics, which suggest that passing is significantly more valuable than running—and that, contrary to traditional football wisdom, you don’t need to establish the run to set up passing plays. Teams can execute play-action effectively regardless of how often they run or how good they are at it. And Henry is a minus in the passing game. While many of this era’s most valuable backs can contribute as receivers (Alvin Kamara, Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, etc.), Henry has never been adept at running routes or catching footballs. In high school, he had 1,397 career carries and eight career receptions. In college, he had 602 carries and 17 receptions. This season, he had just 18 receptions, 45th among running backs. In his career, Henry has 57 catches and seven drops, meaning he’s dropped over 10 percent of catchable balls thrown his way. (And the throws to backs typically aren’t finger breakers.) In Tennessee, Henry has always been paired with a more adept pass-catching option.

So when Henry comes into the game, defenses know they can home in on the run more than usual. In Henry’s rookie year, he faced defenses with eight men in the box on 52.7 percent of his carries—more than any player in any season since NFL’s NextGenStats began tracking defensive alignments. In 2017, Henry faced eight men in the box on 50 percent of his carries. This season, there were eight men in the box on 35.1 percent, fifth most in the league. Most of the players ahead of him are run-first backups.

But Henry is unique in that the amount of defenders cued up to drill him doesn’t matter. Henry is the only player in the NextGenStats database to face eight men in the box on more than 50 percent of his carries and still average at least 4.0 yards per carry—and he did that twice, in 2016 and 2017. In 2019, Henry averaged 5.1 yards per attempt, fifth in the league, while also leading the league in carries and facing more stacked boxes than any starting back. He takes the contact and keeps on moving.

The Titans seem to be a genuine rebuke to the premise that there is no value in running to set up the pass. While I believe that establishing the run is an antiquated piece of football logic not backed up by data, it’s hard to look at Tannehill’s transformation from nobody into superstar and believe that it’s not related to Henry’s presence. In Tannehill’s final season with the Dolphins in 2018, his running backs were Kenyan Drake and Frank Gore, whom defenses didn’t need to respect. Drake drew an eight-man box on only 10 percent of his carries, fourth fewest in the league; Gore drew an eight-man box on 12.2 percent of his carries, 10th fewest.

Now Tannehill is facing defenses that are, first and foremost, terrified of getting trucked by El Tractorcito. Look at how easy the following play is for the Titans. Tennessee comes out in the I-formation like it’s 1985, and the defense commits to stopping the run. A simple play fake draws all three linebackers toward the line of scrimmage; Tannehill pops out and throws a slant to A.J. Brown; and Brown races past the remaining defenders for an easy touchdown. Henry opens everything up by making the best athletes in the NFL look like 5-foot-10 North Florida high-schoolers unfortunate enough to draw the Yulee Hornets on their schedule.

The analytics movement does not project a running back to dominate the most important games of the season. But when you watch Henry bound over defenders like Jeeps over boulders, it feels like there’s only one equation that matters: mass times velocity.