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Don’t Tell Derrick Henry That Running Backs Don’t Matter

NFL running backs have had a rough go of it recently, with more and more evidence building for the fungibility of the position. As my colleague Josh Hermsmeyer wrote last week, 2020 has provided even more examples of high-profile RBs being replaced by unheralded backups who don’t miss much of a beat. It’s not that running backs do nothing to help their teams win — leaguewide rushing expected points added (EPA) per game is currently the highest it’s been since at least 20061 — but that rushing success is dictated by teammates and coaching as much as by the player carrying the ball.

Still, sometimes you have to admire a good, old-fashioned rushing performance in the mold of history’s greatest RBs — and that’s exactly what Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans is giving us this season. Henry led the NFL in rushing last season with 1,540 yards on the ground (102.7 per game) to go with 16 touchdowns, but he’s improving on those numbers so far in 2020. After tearing through the Houston Texans’ defense on Sunday for 212 yards (!) and two touchdowns, Henry is once again leading the league in yards with 588 — or 83 more than any other rusher in football.

If he could keep this up over the full season, Henry’s current 117.6 yards-per-game pace would rank 17th all-time, sandwiched between Barry Sanders’s 1994 season and Shaun Alexander’s 2005. We haven’t seen a player average so many yards per game in a season since Adrian Peterson did it eight years ago en route to winning MVP honors.

In fact, we are unexpectedly witnessing one of the best performances ever by a RB in back-to-back seasons. Right now, Henry is on pace to become just the 14th player since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to average more than 100 rushing yards per game in two consecutive seasons, essentially joining a who’s-who of great running backs from the era:2

Henry is in rare two-year rushing company

Most rushing yards per game (YPG) in back-to-back seasons among players who averaged at least 100 yards per game in both seasons, 1970-2020

Rushing YPG 2-Year Total
Player Seasons Year 1 Year 2 Rush Yds YPG
Eric Dickerson 1983-84 113.0 131.6 3,913 122.3
Terrell Davis 1997-98 116.7 125.5 3,758 121.2
O.J. Simpson 1975-76 129.8 107.4 3,320 118.6
Earl Campbell 1979-80 106.1 128.9 3,631 117.1
Shaun Alexander 2004-05 106.0 117.5 3,576 111.8
Barry Sanders 1993-94 101.4 117.7 2,998 111.0
Eric Dickerson 1986-87 113.8 107.3 3,109 111.0
Larry Johnson 2005-06 109.4 111.8 3,539 110.6
Tiki Barber 2005-06 116.3 103.9 3,522 110.1
Edgerrin James 2000-01 106.8 110.3 2,371 107.8
Emmitt Smith 1992-93 107.1 106.1 3,199 106.6
Derrick Henry 2019-20 102.7 117.6 2,128 106.4
Eric Dickerson 1987-88 107.3 103.7 2,947 105.3
LaDainian Tomlinson 2002-03 105.2 102.8 3,328 104.0

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Before Henry, we hadn’t seen a running back pull off the feat since Larry Johnson of the Kansas City Chiefs and Tiki Barber of the New York Giants each did it in 2005 and 2006. And you could have been forgiven for thinking we might not have ever seen it again, as the era of the high-workload primary back has given way to backfield committees and an increased focus on using RBs in the passing game rather than handing them the ball. Henry’s numbers are a throwback to an earlier time, and nobody else is really in the same neighborhood this year. Among 2020 rushers, only Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook (who missed Week 6 with an injury) is even close to 100 yards per game on the ground; he’s averaging 97.8, which is 11 more than the next-highest rusher (Philadelphia’s Miles Sanders, who is also injured) and nearly 20 yards per game behind Henry. Henry is truly in a class of his own.

And that production is helping Tennessee win games. The Titans are averaging 2.95 EPA per game on the ground so far this season, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, which ranks fourth in the NFL behind the Arizona Cardinals, New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens. And they rank second (behind the Kansas City Chiefs) in win probability added on the ground. Henry’s blockers deserve credit for that as well; Tennessee runners are fifth in yards before first contact per rush, with the path being cleared for 3.33 yards per carry before a defender touches the ball carrier. The passing game has clearly been a huge driver of Tennessee’s success, too — QB Ryan Tannehill has the league’s fourth-best Total QBR this season, and the Titans rank second (again, behind K.C.) in passing EPA per game. Henry is far from the only reason that Tennessee is tied for the fourth-best Super Bowl odds this season, according to our prediction model.

But the Tannehill-Henry tandem obviously works great together. Since Tannehill took over as Tennessee’s starter in Week 7 of the 2019 season, the Titans are 14-4 (including the playoffs), with Henry averaging 119.9 rushing yards per game — 35.7 more than any other player — and Tannehill averaging 97.4 passing yards per game off play-action (which ranks second only to Jared Goff of the L.A. Rams at 98.4). By keeping defenses guessing as to whether Henry or Tannehill will hurt them, it’s no surprise that the Titans are the only team to rank among the top five in offensive EPA per game both through the air and on the ground so far this season.

Week 7 should provide an interesting test for Henry and the Titans, in the form of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense. Pittsburgh ranks second in defensive EPA per game overall and first against the run specifically. Steeler opponents are picking up only 2.03 yards before first contact per run, which could prove an antidote to Tennessee’s run-blocking. But if there’s any running back who stands a chance against Pittsburgh’s front seven, it’s Henry — the closest equivalent the modern game has to the dominating rushers of yesteryear.

FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo ratings

How each team ranks through Week 6 of the 2020 season, according to our quarterback-adjusted predictions

Chance To …
Rk Team Starting QB QB Rk* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win SB
1 Chiefs Mahomes 1 1706 13-3 98% 84% 19%
2 Ravens Jackson 4 1659 12-4 93 47 10
3 Seahawks Wilson 3 1640 12-4 93 68 12
4 Steelers Roethlisberger 10 1636 12-4 93 47 9
5 Titans Tannehill 6 1634 12-4 93 81 9
6 Buccaneers Brady 14 1612 10-6 80 54 8
7 Packers Rodgers 12 1592 11-5 83 49 6
8 Saints Brees 2 1591 9-7 66 38 5
9 Rams Goff 13 1573 9-7 62 15 3
10 Bears Foles 21 1570 11-5 85 48 5
11 49ers Garoppolo 24 1562 8-8 38 6 2
12 Bills Allen 9 1561 10-6 72 63 2
13 Colts Rivers 18 1556 9-7 50 18 2
14 Patriots Newton 17 1544 8-8 42 30 1
15 Raiders Carr 5 1540 9-7 50 12 1
16 Cardinals Murray 7 1534 9-7 52 12 2
17 Browns Mayfield 28 1531 10-6 62 6 1
18 Broncos Lock 32 1504 7-9 20 4 <1
19 Eagles Wentz 22 1476 6-9-1 52 52 <1
20 Falcons Ryan 11 1469 5-11 4 2 <1
21 Texans Watson 8 1460 5-11 4 <1 <1
22 Panthers Bridgewater 15 1456 7-9 18 6 <1
23 Vikings Cousins 23 1455 5-11 6 <1 <1
24 Chargers Herbert 19 1450 6-10 8 <1 <1
25 Lions Stafford 16 1442 7-9 13 2 <1
26 Dolphins Tagovailoa 30 1418 7-9 14 7 <1
27 Bengals Burrow 27 1378 4-11-1 2 <1 <1
28 Cowboys Dalton 29 1367 6-10 27 27 <1
29 Giants Jones 25 1352 4-12 9 9 <1
30 Washington Allen 31 1348 5-11 13 12 <1
31 Jaguars Minshew 20 1323 3-13 <1 <1 <1
32 Jets Darnold✚ 26 1321 2-14 <1 <1 <1

*Ranking among Week 7 starters, according to our QB Elo ratings.

✚ Starter is currently injured and may not play.

Simulations as of Oct. 21, 2020.

Source: ESPN

Looking ahead: Pittsburgh-Tennessee is Elo’s top game of the week, but a close second is New England against San Francisco. The teams are on opposite trajectories — the 49ers had an impressive bounceback win over the Rams last week, while the Patriots suffered an exceedingly rare home loss as a favorite against Denver. New England is at home again in this one, and the Pats are 24-9 in Foxborough when coming off a loss since 2001. But they’ll need more from Cam Newton and a moribund passing attack that ranks 28th in EPA per game, against a Niners defense that has slipped in EPA from No. 2 against the pass last season to No. 12 this year. On the other side, the Pats are also down a bit defensively, and Jimmy Garoppolo looked healthy again versus L.A., though our QB ratings still regard him as a middling starter at best. Maybe Jimmy G. can use this opportunity against his former team to notch a second-straight above-average start for the first time since Week 12 in 2019. But we give the Patriots a 54 percent chance to stop the skid here. Elo’s spread: New England -1

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

Footnotes

  1. The first year for which ESPN’s Stats & Information Group has EPA data.

  2. Somewhat surprisingly (to me, at least), neither Peterson nor Walter Payton ever pulled off this feat; Marshall Faulk didn’t crack the 100-yard average even once, though he came close in 2000 and 2001 (and was pretty busy doing all that receiving anyway).

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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