Making the case for Derrick Henry to win MVP

50 to one.

+5000. Those were Derrick Henry’s MVP odds back on September 9th, before the 2020 NFL season had kicked off, when the prevailing thought was that no running back was worth a second contract, least of all one that doesn’t even catch passes!

That was also before Henry smashed through the 2,000-yard rushing barrier, becoming just the eighth player in NFL history to reach the vaunted 2K status. Henry’s 2020 rushing total is the fifth-highest ever recorded in an NFL season, and he is one of only two players to run for 2,000+ yards and 15+ touchdowns in a season (Terrell Davis ran for 21 TDs on 2,008 yards in 1998, Henry scored 17 on the ground this season to lead all players).

In an era where running back lifespans are short and injuries run rampant, sustained success in the backfield can be hard to come by. Henry is the first player to lead the league in rushing in consecutive seasons since LaDaianian Tomlinson did so in 2006-07, and he bested the second-leading rusher, Dalvin Cook, by a whopping 470 yards. Henry was also the first player to ever score multiple overtime touchdowns in a single season, proving his worth as a closer in the most important moments.

In Week 17 against Houston, Henry became the first player in the Super Bowl era to rush for over 200 yards against the same opponent in three consecutive games. He also set a record for most rushing yards in away games with 1,222 yards on the road.

Henry also became the first player to go for 200+ yards and 2+ TDs in five different games in a career (after he became the first to do so four times in a career earlier this season). Three other players have done it three times in their careers: Tomlinson, Jim Brown, and Barry Sanders. Henry did it three times this season alone!

Henry also set a record for most rushing yards in a 20 game-span, surpassing Terrell Davis’s record by 14 with 2,684 yards in that timeframe. Since Week 10 of last season, Henry is averaging 134.8 yards per game over 23 games!

So what are Henry’s MVP odds now that he’s accomplished so much, including helping lift a Tennessee team that had finished 9-7 four years in a row (since Henry arrived in Tennessee, actually) to 11 wins and an AFC South division title?

Ahead of his monster Week 17 game, Henry’s odds had actually fallen to +6667 (66.7 to 1). But they’ve rebounded after such a strong showing in the finale to +4000 (40 to 1). Rodgers is still heavily favored — like, by a lot — at -2400, meaning to win $100 on the bet, you’d have to risk $2,400 (or if you risked $100, you’d stand to gain $4). Behind him, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen are each +1100, still significantly more likely than Henry’s number.

So what makes Rodgers such a heavy favorite? Why is there such a drop-off after Mahomes/Allen? Henry is obviously as valuable to the Titans offense as any player is to their respective team. Why isn’t he more prominently featured in the MVP conversation?

It’s a quarterback award!

Unfortunately, over the years, this award has become less about the most valuable player in football and more about which quarterback had the best season.

Adrian Peterson is the last non-QB to win the award, and the only non-QB to win since Tomlinson in 2006. Shaun Alexander actually won it the year before LT, when Alexander tied the single-season rushing TD record with 27, which LT topped with 28 in his MVP season the following year.

That said, if it’s going to be a non-QB, it’s likely to be a running back taking home this trophy. The last player to do it at any other position was OLB Lawrence Taylor in 1986. In the last 50 years, Taylor, DT Alan Page, and K Mark Moseley (yes, a kicker won MVP in 1982) are the only players at other positions to win (with 13 RB winners in that span and 36 QBs, including repeat winners).

It’s perfectly understandable and agreeable when Mahomes or Lamar Jackson is putting up unprecedented numbers in their first year as a full-time starter. And undoubtedly the quarterback position is the most important, the most visible, and the biggest determinant to winning in the NFL.

But why is Aaron Rodgers’ season — indisputably a great one in which he threw for a league-high 48 touchdowns and 4,299 yards (seventh most this year) — considered to be so much better than Henry’s?

To play devil’s advocate, perhaps the term “value” could theoretically be measured by the metric Expected Points Added, which simply calculates the down, distance, and field position at the start of a play and contrasts it with the situation at the end of the play (the net point advantage can be determined for any down and distance by adding up the next points scored for and against the offensive team).

It seems natural to assume that adding points is more or less equivalent to adding value, and whomever adds the most points is therefore the most valuable player. But this is just one piece of the statistical puzzle and part of what makes it so hard to determine any single player’s value in the NFL, which is so dependent on the team functioning together to find success.

EPA heavily favors passing, mainly because passes gain more yards on average per attempt than running, and more yards puts you closer to scoring territory. Teams typically score more touchdowns through the air than on the ground, which obviously adds a lot more points. Just look at Tannehill’s EPA total of all his dropbacks this season compared to Henry’s EPA total for all of his rush attempts:

How could EPA possibly account for Henry’s true value, when part of Tannehill’s success comes from the threat of play action? And yes, Tannehill has been extremely productive on traditional dropback passes and on plays where Henry isn’t on the field, but that doesn’t change the impact Henry has when he is on the field. Tannehill’s unstoppable success with the read-option is a perfect testament to the value Henry brings to the offense.

And Henry has the highest total EPA on runs of any back in football, with J.K. Dobbins the next closest at +23.

But isn’t the run game just a refection of a team’s offensive line performance?

A lot of times, yes. However, Next Gen Stats created a new metric to measure running back success independent of offensive line play. It’s called “expected rushing yards,” which attempts to answer the question, how many rushing yards will a ball-carrier gain from the moment of handoff?

By subtracting a player’s expected rushing yards from their actual rushing yards, we can determine a player’s rushing yards over expectation. Henry was the league leader in this metric in 2019, and he repeated that in 2020. That means Henry is the best player in the league at rushing for more yards than he should — based on the relative location, speed and acceleration of every player on the field at the moment of handoff.

Another way to measure what a back produces independent of his offensive line is looking at yards after contact, and as you probably guessed, Henry leads the league there, too (according to PFF). In fact, if you removed yards before contact and only put Henry’s yards after contact up against the rest of the NFL’s leading rushers, Henry would still place second with 1,490 (just behind Cook’s 1,557 total rushing yards). The next closest player in yards after contact is Cook at 1,039 — over 450 yards less!

Here’s some more eyepopping stats about Henry’s incredible season, from Football Outsiders: he’s first in DYAR (which compares a player’s performance to replacement level, adjusted for situation and opponent, and translated into yardage), first in “effective yards” with over 2,000 (a metric which basically removes yards that don’t matter as much — for example, a ten-yard rush is great, but it’s meaningless on third-and-15 — showing just how valuable Henry’s 2,027 yard season was), and seventh in success rate at 57%, which is especially impressive considering that Henry led the league in first-down carries by 70 over Dalvin Cook.

More stats, these from PFF, in which Henry led all ballcarriers: avoided tackles (75), first downs gained on the ground (95), carries of 10+ yards (48), PFF grade (92.4), and, importantly, rushing attempts (378).

Yeah, but Henry is only leading all these categories because he touches the football more than any other running back.

In some ways, this is true. Henry is only second in yards-after-contact-per-rush to Nick Chubb, while he’s first in total yards after contact.

But part of Henry’s value is the ability to tote the rock nearly 400 times in a season. Nick Chubb doesn’t have more yards-after-contact than Henry not just because he shares a backfield with Kareem Hunt, but because Chubb missed four games with a knee injury.

Henry’s dependability and consistent success despite being the focal part of any defensive gameplan is another reason he’s so valuable to the Titans. A model of consistency, he’s the first player in 15 years to run for 50+ yards in twenty-eight straight games.

(The above tweet is part of a great thread also making Henry’s case to win the MVP award.)

What about the other 2,000 yard rushers? They didn’t all win MVP...

Of the other seven runners in the 2K club, four of them won the MVP that season: O.J. Simpson in 1973, Barry Sanders in 1997, Terrell Davis in 1998 (they must’ve thought 2,000-yard seasons grew on trees back in the late ’90s), and Adrian Peterson in 2012.

Eric Dickerson lost the award in 1984 to Dan Marino, who threw for a then-NFL record 5,084 passing yards and 48 touchdowns, unprecedented numbers that had never been done before. Jamal Lewis lost in 2003 to Peyton Manning and Steve McNair, and Chris Johnson’s 2009 Titans team simply wasn’t good enough for Johnson to ever really be in the conversation.

Dickerson is the only one who didn’t win Offensive Player of the Year, which also went to Marino (side note: Henry is a virtual lock to win OPOY).

Let’s put this into perspective a little bit: Marino threw 48 touchdowns in 1984 — the same as Rodgers but nearly 40 years prior. The league has changed a lot since 1984 to favor the passing game, and teams are running the ball less than ever. Yet Marino bested Rodgers’ passing total by nearly 700 yards.

This is not to make light of the phenomenal season Rodgers posted. 48 passing touchdowns and 4,299 yards — with only 5 interceptions — is a rare feat for a quarterback to accomplish.

But is it more rare than Henry’s season?

Five quarterbacks had thrown for 48 or more touchdown passes before Rodgers did it. Only four running backs have ever run for more yards than Henry did this year.

Rodgers’ passing yardage number was only seventh best this season. Looking at the all-time single-season leaders, Rodgers doesn’t even sniff the upper tier. His 4,299 yards is tied with Eli Manning for the 109th-most in one campaign. And while 30 other players have run for at least 17 touchdowns in a season, Henry’s 2,027 yards is the most of any player to run for 17 or more scores.

Meanwhile, Henry was running most of the season behind an offensive line consisting of a second or third-string left tackle, a left guard and center who were frequently in and out of the lineup as they battled various injuries, a second-year right guard no one outside of Tennessee knows, and a right tackle who had been a career backup until this season.

Credit to the big guys up front for performing at a high level, and also to OL coach Keith Carter and OC Arthur Smith. But what Henry did without stalwart LT Taylor Lewan, after losing “mauling” right tackle Jack Conklin in the offseason, is a special accomplishment.

It’s not a perfect comparison, but when you combine the yardage with the touchdowns, Henry is in more elite company than Rodgers. The Packers passer became the sixth quarterback to ever throw for at least 4,299 yards with 48 touchdowns. King Henry is just the second back in history with over 2,000 rush yards and 17+ touchdowns.

Where Rodgers achieved true brilliance was his ability to limit turnovers with his gaudy passing stats. As SuperHorn pointed out in advance of the Titans-Packers game, only one other quarterback has maintained a touchdown percentage over 8% and an interception percentage under 1% (Nick Foles in 2013). The other five quarterbacks in the 4,299/48 club all threw at least 8 interceptions, with four throwing 10 or more.

Is that enough to make Rodger’s the league’s most valuable player?

Probably so, because at the end of the day, it is a quarterback award.

But Derrick Henry deserves serious consideration, and he’s a shoe-in for Offensive Player of the Year.

Comments

  1. It’s hard to justify any player being viewed as more valuable to a team than Henry. One point not usually mentioned is his role in a running game that limited the porous defense’s time on the field..and saved at least a couple of W’s.

    That said, there’s no chance he wins it out right – Not taking anything away from McNair, but if any Titan season was deserving of an MVP split, it would be Henry’s…

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