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Derrick Henry Isn’t Just Defying Football History. He’s Making It.

The Titans star is chasing his second straight 2,000-yard season and his third straight rushing title. He’s also making a case that someone from the era that deemphasized running can go down as one of the greatest running backs of all time.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

At 6-foot-3 and 247 pounds, Derrick Henry is the tallest and heaviest running back in the NFL. In Week 6, he also showed that he’s the fastest. He was clocked at 21.8 miles per hour on a 76-yard touchdown run against the Bills. Last year, he flung a Buffalo defender into orbit; this year, none got close enough for Henry to launch them to outer space.

Henry’s top speed on that play is the fastest of any ballcarrier this season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. Nobody else in the top 10 weighs more than 215 pounds, and most of the plays on that leaderboard are either punt returns or receptions. The 247-pound Henry reaching 21.8 mph on a run from scrimmage is like an 18-wheeler breaking the land-speed record while hauling a truckload of beer to a gas station.

It’s hard to find a rushing leaderboard these days that doesn’t have Henry at the top. He’s not only the biggest, the strongest, and the fastest; he’s also the most productive. Barring injury, Henry will lead the NFL in rushing for a third straight season. In 2020 he won the rushing title by 470 yards. After reeling off five straight 100-yard performances in 2021, he’s already 290 yards ahead of the field with 10 games left. He could conceivably win the rushing title by more than 700 yards.

Henry is obviously the best running back in the NFL right now, but now is a strange time to be the best runner. Only one of the top 45 rushing seasons in league history has come in the last five years: Henry’s 2020 campaign (2,027 yards), which ranks fifth all time. This year, he’s on pace to break Eric Dickerson’s all-time single-season rushing record (2,105 yards), set in 1984. Henry also has 10 rushing touchdowns through the Titans’ first seven games; if he scores 10 in the final 10 games, he’ll be the first player to register 20 rushing touchdowns since 2006.

Being the best running back in 2021 is a bit like being the tallest corgi. But as Henry continues to dominate season after season, his place in history is becoming hard to ignore. Can someone from the era that deemphasized running really go down as one of the greatest running backs of all time?

If you want to get older football fans hyped, bring up the legendary running backs of the past. Let them tell you about Walter Payton, or Tony Dorsett, or Gale Sayers. Their eyes will light up like they’re talking about a young love. They’ll bust out memories like well-worn photos from a wallet. Try to have the same conversation with younger football fans, and they’ll tell you about having Todd Gurley in fantasy that year he went off in Week 16.

For a long time, running backs were the biggest stars in football. Two of the top five players (Jim Brown and Payton) on the NFL’s list of its 100 greatest players were running backs. Four others are in the top 30. Sixteen players led the NFL in rushing between the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 and 2000; 10 of those are Hall of Famers.

  • Larry Brown (1970)
  • Floyd Little (1971)
  • O.J. Simpson (1972-73, 1975-76)
  • Otis Armstrong (1974)
  • Walter Payton (1977)
  • Earl Campbell (1978-80)
  • George Rogers (1981)
  • Freeman McNeil (1982)
  • Eric Dickerson (1983-84, 1986, 1988)
  • Marcus Allen (1985)
  • Charles White (1987)
  • Christian Okoye (1989)
  • Barry Sanders (1990, 1994, 1996-97)
  • Emmitt Smith (1991-93, 1995)
  • Terrell Davis (1998)
  • Edgerrin James (1999-2000)

Now it’s hard for any running back to gain consideration as an all-time great. Fifteen players have led the NFL in rushing since 2000; I don’t think the bust-makers in Canton have to worry about perfecting the profiles of DeMarco Murray, Kareem Hunt, or Maurice Jones-Drew. The great running backs of yore were fixtures of their franchises; even the best running backs today are widely seen as disposable. Eleven of the 15 players to lead the league in rushing since 2000 did so for only a single season. A few were cast aside by their teams shortly after leading the league.

  • Priest Holmes (2001)
  • Ricky Williams (2002)
  • Jamal Lewis (2003)
  • Curtis Martin (2004)
  • Shaun Alexander (2005)
  • LaDainian Tomlinson (2006-07)
  • Adrian Peterson (2008, 2012, 2015)
  • Chris Johnson (2009)
  • Arian Foster (2010)
  • Maurice Jones-Drew (2011)
  • LeSean McCoy (2013)
  • DeMarco Murray (2014)
  • Ezekiel Elliott (2016, 2018)
  • Kareem Hunt (2017)
  • Derrick Henry (2019-20)

Henry is not like most of the names on this list. He’s the first player since LaDainian Tomlinson to win back-to-back rushing titles, and he’s on pace to increase his rushing total for the fourth straight year. But I have yet to find him mentioned in any ranking of the NFL’s best running backs of all time. Here’s one from March that doesn’t include Henry as one of the league’s 25 greatest backs or as one of the 10 honorable mentions. On the one hand, I get it: Coming into this year, Henry had only two great seasons, and he still hasn’t cracked the top 50 in all-time yardage. But he’s already scored more career rushing touchdowns than Hall of Famer Terrell Davis (and has only 878 fewer yards), and he has plenty of career to go. If Henry leads the NFL in rushing for a third consecutive season, he’ll be just the fourth player to ever do it, joining Brown, Earl Campbell, and Emmitt Smith.

A case can be made that leading the league in rushing is easy when you’re the only player who rushes a lot. When Dickerson set the rushing record in 1984, he had 379 carries. Three other players that season had at least 350 attempts, with James Wilder leading the pack at 407. When Henry led the league in rushing last year, he had 378 carries. Only two other players even had 250 attempts, with Dalvin Cook (312 carries) and Josh Jacobs (273) coming in second and third, respectively.

The same trend is evident this year. Henry has 68 more carries than anyone else—almost 10 more per game than the second-most-prolific runner. He’s averaging only 4.5 yards per carry, well off the league lead, and behind his 5.4-yards-per-carry clip last year. His spot atop the rushing yardage leaderboard is partly a product of his running the ball way more than everybody else.

Except Henry’s greatness isn’t just volume-based. He performs well in rush yards over expectation per attempt—a rate-based stat that accounts for the positioning of nearby defenders. He led the league in this metric in 2019, and finished fifth in 2020.

And you could argue that Henry’s volume is key to understanding his greatness. Part of the reason he has such a high workload compared to other running backs is that he’s been able to stay healthy at an injury-prone position. Henry has played in 85 of 87 possible career NFL games. My favorite Henry-related statistic is that he averages 3.3 yards per carry in the first quarter and 5.2 yards per carry in the fourth. Henry doesn’t just get better over the course of games, but over the course of seasons. In weeks 1-8, Henry averages 4.3 yards per carry; in weeks 9-16, he averages 5.7. All of these attempts should break him; instead, he breaks defenses.

When the postseason rolls around, defenses are banged up, bruised, and tired. Meanwhile, Henry’s doing just fine. He’s averaging 111.7 rushing yards per game in the playoffs, the fifth-highest mark in NFL history, and has three 100-plus-yard games, all Titans wins. Only nine players in league history have more than three 100-yard postseason games; seven of them are Hall of Famers, and an eighth (Marshawn Lynch) is not yet eligible to be inducted. Henry is a growing postseason legend—and he’s probably going to power the Titans to a third straight postseason berth.

Another argument against Henry’s historical greatness is that modern defenses aren’t built to stop the run. When Payton got the ball in the 1970s and ’80s, he ran at eight players whose primary task was stopping him. No one was concerned about the Bears throwing the ball. (The more things change, the more things stay the same.) Now, defenses are tasked with stopping the pass. Almost 60 percent of snaps last season came with five defensive backs on the field, plus an additional 15 percent that had six or more. Even when defenses do line up in the formations of old, the players are on the field for different reasons. Teams used to value linebackers and safeties for delivering punishing hits. Now, they value those who can hold their own in coverage.

But here, too, the calculus with Henry is different. Opponents know that he’s getting the ball. They simply can’t stop him. Year after year, Henry leads the league in yardage against stacked boxes. According to Next Gen Stats, he’s faced an eight-man box on 37.7 percent of his carries this season, the third-highest rate in the league—and he has more rushing attempts than the two guys above him combined.

This may sound odd, but Henry’s statistical legacy reminds me a bit of Dan Marino’s. If you look at the all-time passing leaderboard, virtually everyone on the lists played in the past decade—other than Marino, who apparently played full-fledged modern football 30 years ago. The top 20 seasons in passing yardage have all happened since 2008—except Marino’s 1984 campaign, when he became the first QB to eclipse 5,000 yards. Nobody would join him for 24 years. The top 10 seasons in passing touchdowns have come since 2004—and then there’s Marino’s 1984 and ’86. Marino even stands out in rate-based stats like adjusted net yards per attempt. The top 10 seasons there have all come since 2004 … except Marino’s 1984.

Henry is doing the same thing, just in reverse. His career shouldn’t be possible in the modern era. He’s putting up stats better suited for 1985 than today. But he’s putting them up all the same.

That’s not a knock on his place in history. If anything, it’s a case for his budding legend. Henry feels timeless in that there’s no point when he wouldn’t have dominated. In ancient times, he would’ve been mythologized, until 1,000 years later he was remembered as a half-man and half-lion. In the league’s early years, he would’ve caused smaller, slower defenders to explode on contact. Today, he treats the greatest athletes on the planet like the Kool-Aid Man treats walls. The longer he remains a dominant runner in a pass-heavy world, the more Henry will earn his place in the pantheon.