“Running backs don’t matter.”
It’s a popular refrain among the segment of NFL media that leans most heavily into the football analytics movement and it’s usually delivered with a sneering, condescending tone towards those who advocate for doing something like signing a two-down back to a four-year, $50-million contract with $25.5-million fully guaranteed as the Tennessee Titans just did with reigning rushing champ and suspected cyborg Derrick Henry.
And usually they’re right. Recent history has not been kind to teams that sign backs to big second contracts. The Rams saw Todd Gurley go from 2017 Offensive Player of the Year to a pure cap dump in just two years. The Cardinals got almost nothing out of David Johnson’s three-year, $39-million extension. Le’Veon Bell averaged a paltry 3.2 yards per carry last season after getting a big payday from the Jets. Jerrick McKinnon — who signed a four-year, $30-million deal with the 49ers two years ago — still hasn’t played a down of regular season football in San Francisco due to injuries.
Beyond the anecdotal evidence listed above, there is also plenty of data that points to a lack of tangible value added by running backs to the success of their teams. Advanced metrics like Football Outsiders’ DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), EPA (Expected Points Added), and pretty much every other widely cited smart stat practically screams that passing is more valuable than rushing, and by extension, the running back position matters very little to a team’s overall success. Hell, I even wrote at length about the logic behind this myself a couple of years ago, including my own regression analysis that pointed to the same conclusion.
So why do I think the analytics nerds are wrong to bash this Henry deal?
Let’s start with the contract itself. As Zach Lyons wrote about in depth here at Broadway Sports, Henry’s deal didn’t come remotely close to resetting the running back market. His $12.5-million average annual value (AAV) falls well short of the $16-million AAV number that Christian McCaffery got earlier this offseason. It also falls 20% short of the $15-million AAV deals that Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley signed over the past couple years. Sure, those guys all carry more weight in the pass game than Henry has, but that difference is baked into the price.
Henry’s deal is effectively a two-year contract based around what he would have received had the team franchise tagged him for both the 2020 and 2021 seasons. The Titans are on the hook for just $6-million in dead cap money if they choose to move on from Henry after the 2021 season. The only “new” risk that the team is taking on is that second season, a year when their star back will still be just 27 years old.
There is also plenty of evidence that suggests that King Henry is, in fact, special among his running back peers. Henry leads the NFL in broken tackles since 2017 according to PFF even though he wasn’t truly used as a feature back for more than half of that time frame. During that same span, he’s finished 2nd, 2nd, and 1st in the NFL in yards after contact per carry (minimum 150 carries).
One of the stats that most directly reflects Henry’s value relative to other backs is a direct comparison to his former teammate Dion Lewis. Both guys ran in the same offense and behind the same offensive line, yet Lewis only managed 3.47 yards per attempt while Henry notched 5.02. If Henry is simply a product of his offensive line, then explain the extra yard and a half per tote that he earned compared to his teammate.
And while we’re here, can we please stop with the “Henry splits with and without Tannehill” argument? I’m not here to suggest that Tannehill had zero impact on Henry’s success later in the year, but we must also acknowledge that part of Henry’s slow start in 2019 was a result of having his best offensive lineman suspended for four games, a constantly shuffling right guard spot, and a rocky start from free agent signee Rodger Saffold. Not to mention breaking in a first time offensive playcaller in Arthur Smith.
Besides, if Henry’s dominance was all Tannehill’s doing, can you explain why he ripped off a similar run at the end of 2018 with a damaged Marcus Mariota under center?
Henry’s combination of size, strength, and speed also make him unique. He’s the heaviest starting tailback in the NFL by almost 15 pounds, but he still features the top-end speed to be a true home run hitter when he reaches the second level as evidenced by his league-leading 11 rushing touchdowns of 10-plus yards over the past two years. He combines that rare skill set with a maniacal work ethic and a durable body (only two missed starts in four pro seasons).
In a league that is getting smaller year by year on the defensive side of the ball — today’s inside linebackers are the size of early 2000’s safeties — in an effort to counteract the growing influence of spread passing attacks, Henry’s size has a real changeup effect on opponents. Preparing for the Titans offense with the hulking Henry in the backfield — and a massive offensive line and skill group in general for that matter — is a very different challenge for defenders.
And that brings me to my biggest point in this discussion: not every team has to win the exact same way. Yes, I will concede to the analytics crowd that if all things are equal, you’d rather have a dynamic passing attack than a brutish run game, but not every team has Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes.
Suggesting that the Titans, with Ryan Tannehill and Mike Vrabel, should approach roster building and offense the exact same way that Kansas City does is preposterous (and that’s not meant to be a slight at Tannehill, who was excellent last year, but obviously isn’t a Mahomes-level talent). Of course they should look at things differently, just like the Ravens did with their unique talent in Lamar Jackson last season.
Baltimore led the NFL in scoring last season, finishing more than 50 points clear of the 2nd place 49ers and they reached those lofty heights by running the ball more than any other team in the league (San Francisco was also among the most run-heavy teams, by the way).
And that’s not just because they were almost always ahead of their opponents either. When you remove blowouts and 4th quarter snaps and look solely at 1st and 2nd downs in one-score games during the first three quarters, Baltimore ran the ball a whopping 59% of the time according to Sharp Football Stats, three points higher than the next most ground-based team… the Tennessee Titans.
So yes, there are still multiple ways to win in the modern NFL and it’s time the analytics crowd recognizes that and stops mocking teams that choose to build around their strengths instead of chasing some idealized model of NFL value perfection. There is real value in being realistic about what your strengths are and building around those.
The 2020 NFL Draft provided us with yet another piece of evidence that Jon Robinson is steering into the identity that helped take his team within one game of a Super Bowl appearance last fall. When Tennessee selected hulking right tackle Isaiah Wilson (6’-6”, 350 lbs) with the 29th overall pick, they might as well have planted a “run the damn ball” billboard outside of Nissan Stadium.
The Titans are going to play BullyBall on offense. The projected starting offensive line – assuming Wilson winds up beating out veteran Dennis Kelly – goes 309-323-308-316-350 from left to right and starting wide receivers A.J. Brown (226 lbs) and Corey Davis (209 lbs) are big and physical as well.
Henry has become an expert at reading the Titans bread and butter run play – the outside zone – over the past two years. When he’s in sync with the offensive line like he was late last season, he’s the most unstoppable runner in the league, even when defenses load the box in an attempt to take him away. Henry faced eight or more defenders in the box on 188 carries last season, 41 more than any other running back, but simply throwing more bodies at the problem didn’t work for NFL defenses. Henry rushed for over 5 yards per carry against eight-or-more in the box in 2019, another number that topped the league.
Attracting defenders to the line of scrimmage also comes with a couple massive positives for the Titans offense. For one, it restricts the coverage options available to opposing defenses. Cover 2 and Quarters looks are all but off the table because you need that second safety in the box. Shortening the menu for defensive coordinators makes life easier on Titans OC Arthur Smith as well as Tannehill and his receivers. They can go into a playcall feeling fairly confident about the type of look they’re getting from their opponent (usually some sort of single high coverage).
Having more bodies at the line of scrimmage and keying on Henry is a key component to the play action game that Tannehill and the Titans had so much success with last year. We saw it time and time again in 2019. Tannehill fakes to Henry, linebackers step up to fill their run responsibilities and Tannehill hits a crosser to A.J. Brown in the hole created behind those linebackers. The Titans play action attack was tops in the NFL in 2019 and it wasn’t particularly close.
Call me crazy, but I’m not sure that I buy Darrynton Evans leading the league in attracting stacked boxes from opposing defenses and opening up the benefits for the passing offense that Henry’s massive presence (both literally and figuratively) does.
The last point I’ll make is one that can’t be quantified, but I believe it to be real… paying Henry is good for the locker room. Over the past four years, he’s not only emerged as one of the best backs in the NFL, but he’s also risen to a role as a respected team leader whose work ethic sets the standard for his teammates. Mike Vrabel always talks about the team taking care of those who take care of the team and this move helps back that talk up with real substance.
So while I’m not going to argue that running backs matter in general, I am going to say that this running back matters, especially for this football team.
Do you side with the “don’t pay running backs crowd”? Or do you think Henry is going to buck the trend? Let us know where you fall in the comments below!