The Decline and Fall of Derrick Henry

Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry
Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Offseason - Derrick Henry is toast.

Don't act like you weren't already thinking it. Don't act like you're surprised to hear it from Football Outsiders, the pioneers of the Curse of 370, either.

Henry is two years removed from a 378-carry, 2,027-yard season for the Tennessee Titans that was magnificent to watch but which voided his factory warranty. Henry appeared to be cruising along without a care about his mileage in the first half of 2021, with five 100-yard rushing afternoons in his first six games, before suffering a foot fracture against the Colts in Week 8. He returned for 20 carries for 62 yards in the playoff loss to the Bengals, which was a far cry from the 195-yard playoff performances of years past which made Henry much more than a fantasy football legend.

An overused power runner coming off a major foot injury? Sure, we'll take him as a fantasy RB1 (more on that later), if only because there aren't many better options. But we'll pass on Henry as the focal point of an offense with Super Bowl aspirations.

Walkthrough is certain that Henry is toast, not because of the injury or a "curse" (and the research behind that curse), but because of a Sports Info Solutions metric called Broken Tackles plus Missed Tackles divided by Attempts. Walkthrough abbreviates that as BMT%, and it's exactly what the label says it is.

Denver Broncos rookie Javonte Williams led the NFL with a BMT% of 21.7 in 2021. Buffalo Bills running back Devin Singletary was a surprising second at 21.3%. Most of the running backs who matter hovered in the 15.0% range: Aaron Jones (17.5%), Alvan Kamara (16.3%), Jonathan Taylor (16.3%), Nick Chubb (15.4%.)

So where's Henry? Well, here are the NFL's worst broken/missed tackle rates for 2021 among backs with over 150 carries:

Lowest BMT%, 2021
Name Team BMT%
Ezekiel Elliott DAL 6.8%
Cordarelle Patterson ATL 7.8%
Jamaal Williams DET 8.5%
Chuba Hubbard CAR 8.7%
Myles Gaskin MIA 8.7%
Derrick Henry TEN 9.6%
Saquon Barkley NYG 9.9%
Austin Ekeler KAC 10.7%
Joe Mixon CIN 11.3%
James Robinson JAX 12.2%

Elliott is the albatross Jerry Jones chained around the Cowboys' neck. (Tony Pollard's BMT% was a not-so-hot 10.8%, if you are curious.) Patterson was a fun story for a not-so-fun team, but he was no more than an adequate rusher. Williams is a veteran RB2 known more for funny quips and locker-room leadership than truck-stick highlights. Hubbard was a bland rookie pressed into service for a bad team. Gaskin is a committee back who played behind one of the league's worst lines in 2021; he rarely had room to run and did nothing with what he had. Barkley is the muscle car the Giants wrecked the moment they drove him off the lot.

We see better running backs at the bottom (top, really) of the list above, but we also see BMT rates climbing well into the double digits. And it's worth noting here that BMT% is a rushing stat, so Ekeler, Patterson, and others don't get any credit for juking defenders after receptions. (A scan of the receiving BMT rates for running backs revealed nothing noteworthy about the backs that we're discussing.)

It's not an encouraging sign to see Henry on the same list as guys like Elliott and Barkley, plus a bunch of committee backs and randos. But perhaps we are looking at some sort of statistical anomaly. Henry is more likely to break a tackle than make a defender miss, so maybe there's some counting aberration at work. Perhaps Henry always posts low BMT rates, and it's no big deal.

Nope. Here are Henry's career broken/missed tackle percentages:

Derrick Henry, Career BMT%
Year BMT%
2017 23.3%
2018 23.7%
2019 21.5%
2020 15.1%
2021 9.6%

Oh dear. It looks like BMT rates might get dragged downward by central tendency when a back's workload gets extremely high. That makes sense for someone like Henry, who gets a lot of carries near the goal line (not many opportunities to make defenders miss) and in the fourth quarters of victories (keeping both hands on the ball is a higher priority than breaking a long gain.) High usage may explain Henry's drop in 2020, but he posted the worst rate by far of his career in 2021, and his rates are in a four-year decline. Furthermore his foot injury had little or nothing to do with his 2021 plummet, because he only carried a handful of times after getting hurt in the Colts game, and his playoff performance is not counted in the figures above.

To provide a raw-number sense of what these BMT rates mean: Henry broke or eluded 29 tackles in 182 carries in his first eight games of 2020 and 34 tackles on 151 carries in his first eight games of 2019. Last year, he broke or eluded just 21 tackles on 219 attempts before getting hurt at the end of his eighth game. So we're talking about 8-13 lost trucks and jukes in a half-season, or about one to 1.5 per game, perhaps more when an increase in carries is factored in. One or two fewer highlights per game is the difference between an Offensive Player of the Year candidate and a high-volume plodder.

Just to make sure we weren't chasing down some high-volatility statistic that has little to do with future performance, we combed the Sports Info Solutions data searching for rushers from 2015 to 2021 with 200-plus attempts in a season but a BMT% in Henry's 2021 neighborhood. Here is who we found:

Lowest BMT%, 200+ Carries, 2015-2021
Name Team Year BMT%
Ezekiel Elliott DAL 2021 6.8%
Kenyan Drake ARI 2020 9.2%
Derrick Henry TEN 2021 9.6%
Jordan Howard CHI 2018 9.6%
Frank Gore IND 2016 9.9%
Darren McFadden DAL 2015 10.0%
Lamar Miller HOU 2016 10.1%
Alfred Morris WAS 2015 10.4%
Austin Ekeler LAC 2021 10.7%
Isaiah Crowell CLE 2017 10.7%
Sony Michel NE 2018 10.9%

We typically add columns to charts like the one above itemizing what happened to each player the next season. But c'mon, just look at that list: it's all rushers on their last legs as featured backs or one-year semi-wonders. It's a frightening list for Henry (and Zeke; Ekeler can safely melt back into a committee role) to be on.

So what will Henry's first season with a blown piston rod look like? Todd Gurley's 2019 season (857 yards, 12 touchdowns) or Zeke last year (1,002 yards, 10 touchdowns) probably represent the low end of the projection. Henry is going to get force-fed 20-plus carries per game, after all, because the Titans suddenly have little else on offense.

Walkthrough snuck a peak at the early KUBIAK projections, and they're very encouraging for fantasy gamers, in part because we project well over 300 carries for Henry. But there's a difference between a running back who can rack up a dozen touchdowns for your fantasy team and one who can reliably produce chunk yardage against stacked boxes for a team that was forced to trade away its top wide receiver on draft day.

The biggest yellow flag for Henry and the Titans may not be a broken tackle percentage or the Curse of 370 but a receiver corps now spearheaded by rookie Treylon Burks and veteran Robert Woods, a 30-year-old who is new to the team/system and coming off an ACL tear. We rightfully roast the Cowboys for overpaying Zeke and losing Amari Cooper as a result, but Henry is costing the Titans $15 million in cap space this year, money that could have been used to keep A.J. Brown. The Titans may now have caught themselves in a finger trap: Henry's salary contributed to the loss of Brown, whose absence will make things harder for Henry, whose past mileage may prevent him from breaking the tackles he used to break to keep the Titans offense humming.

The Titans did draft an insurance policy of sorts for Henry: fourth-round pick Hassan Haskins, who was a 270-1,327-20 workhorse for Michigan. Unfortunately, Haskins' BMT% of 13.0% ranked 29th among rushers with 200-plus carries in 2021 and was well below the rates posted by top prospects Kenneth Walker (29.9%) and Breece Hall (28.5%.)

So yes, Derrick Henry is toast, though it may take another year or two for him to crumble into crumbs. And there's a troubling chance that the Titans may slowly crumble along with him.

Quick Hitters

News 'n' notes from around the NFL.

Tom Brady to earn $357 million over 10 years as a FOX color commentator if he ever retires, per reports.
It's your chance to spend four hours per week with a man who will do anything to not spend time with his wife.

FOX disputes reports about Brady's contract.
"Oh please, please stop talking about how expensive and glamorous our future broadcasts will be. We hate the publicity this is generating!"

Giants release cornerback James Bradberry because they cannot afford to keep him.
Arctic expedition throws blankets overboard to cut weight so they can stay afloat.

Nelson Agholor on who is coordinating the Patriots offense: "Ask Coach Belichick."
Ask Coach Belichick is actually a new search engine which only takes you to lacrosse boxscores, used hoodie dealerships, the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga athletics homepage, a mysterious Twitter burner account called @FckBrdy89867757578, and lots of self-help websites about reclaiming past glory.

Broncos at Rams scheduled for Christmas Day on Nickelodeon.
Christmas in L.A.? It will be like watching Russell Wilson try to save Nakatomi Tower.

Jim Irsay made a $2-million bid for Kurt Cobain's guitar at a charity auction.
That guitar is currently the Colts' WR3. (But seriously: Check out the Kicking the Stigma campaign.)

Kayvon Thibodeaux donates $50,000 to Puppies Behind Bars, a service dog charity for first responders, in exchange for Graham Gano's No. 5 jersey.
Headline rewritten for the haters: "Thibodeaux likes puppies and kicker numbers, obviously not manly enough to generate sacks, falls 10 more spots on draft boards."

Dolphins social media account posts video of Tua Tagovailoa apparently underthrowing Tyreek Hill.
Take it away, weirdos!

Going to the Mattresses: A Walkthrough Bonus Essay

Soft or firm? Coiled or foam? Cooling, heating, or air frying? Side-sleeper, belly-sleeper, back-sleeper, or toss-and-turner (not to be confused with New Orleans Saints legend Toussaint Tyler)?

Mattress shopping is complicated, and a little personal.

As a child, I slept on a coil mattress atop a slab of plywood on a captain's bed, and I liked it, got-dangit. When I was a newlywed, mattresses came in soft or firm, just as beer came in "regular" and "lite," coffee in "regular" and "decaf." These were not the good ol' days, mind you, because most beer tasted like it came from a specimen jar and coffee tasted like hot water mixed with topsoil, but the two varieties of mattresses felt adequate to most people's needs.

When when my wife and I began mattress-shopping as part of our transition from parents-of-children to parents-of-young-adults, however, we discovered a dizzying (literally, for this vertigo sufferer) variety of choices to climb onto and off of, in a price range from "gosh, that's rather steep," to "how many cylinders and horsepower has it got?"

And oh, the questions. Do you snore? (Buzzsaws get jealous of my volume and treble.) Have back problems? (I'm an overweight middle-aged sportswriter, so duh.) Sleep with a 70-pound pitbull wedged between you and your spouse? (What rational person doesn't?) Preferred sexual position? (Firm.) Awake with a feeling of impending dread? (It's America in the 2020s, so duh.) The local Mattress Consortium has a style just right for your needs. It only costs four thousand dollars.

Four thousand dollars? For that price, it better Inception Mary Tyler Moore circa 1962 into my dreams, stimulate erogenous zones I don't know I have, and liposuction my waistline while I snooze.

But wait, there's more! The mattress salesman—this fellow was indeed informative and helpful, and he never took his upsale efforts beyond second gear—demonstrated an adjustable bed for us.

The first person in my life to own an adjustable bed was my Great Aunt Millie, who purchased one of those as-seen-on-TV models in the mid-'70s. Millie was a stock character for a coming-of-age memoir. She stole ketchup and butter packets from every diner she set foot in and spent her life certain that pro wrestling was real. She believed that fish should be given away for free in supermarkets because the fishermen didn't pay anything to catch them. That bed was probably worth more than the Fairview rowhouse she lived in. She let me take it for a spin once when I was a tyke, and I thought I had gone straight to Disney World.

So the salesman pushed a button, my head tilted upward, and suddenly I was 7 years old, drinking chocolate milk and watching Hollywood Squares on my aunt's black-and-white television. Another tap and my knees were suspended above my torso, easing the strain on my poor cholesterol-saturated heart. Comfort sorcery! I almost begged him to keep going until I was nothing more than the sliced lamb in a pita pocket, but there were insurance issues involving potentially snapping the spine of a customer.

Suddenly, I was Trent Baalke on the first day of free agency. I would pay any amount of money to achieve, with the help of a pricey motorized bed frame, contortions which could only be accomplished in my past with three pillows and 30 seconds of adjustments.

Eventually, I shrewdly haggled my way down from the $4,000 mattress to something a family of opossums had been living atop beneath a railroad trestle the day before. My wife intervened, and we haggled our way back up to something comfortable which neither cost too much nor smelled like Sterno. Still, my credit card was pleading not to hurt it too much. Then I saw that mattresses could be financed. Two-digits per month! Until the payments become my sons' problem! Why, it's practically Netflix you can sleep upon!

A two-digit monthly payment easily fits my family budget. But then I began adding up all the two-digit payments that creep out of our bank account each month—streaming services, news-outlet accounts, Stathead, some charities, the exterminator, little cellphone charges I don't understand and never think about, and so forth—all of which "easily fit my family budget." I also thought about what that budget could look like by the 2030s.

Any NFL general manager or head of household will tell you that long-range budgeting is brutal. There are things you can plan for, like a young quarterback approaching his first extension or children reaching college age. There are things you cannot, like a pandemic and its long, incalculable aftermath. There are windows when you have a margin for error: the prime of a Hall of Fame quarterback, the Bengals-like first flush of contention, the carefree youthful months after you get your first "real" job. And there are times to be frugal: the closing of a Super Bowl window, the moment when both children are approaching college, the graying days when retirement starts to feel real and the energy for a do-it-yourself home repair (or the freelance side hustle to pay for that home repair) can no longer be mustered. And finally there are the things that matter more than anything else, like winning a Super Bowl or a good night's sleep.

It's like freakin' Ecclesiastes-meets-Richie Havens, but with footballs, or mattresses.

Too many false moves, too much wishful thinking, too many dollars shrugged off until tomorrow and any household could end up like the Atlanta Falcons, whose fancy-shmancy suspended animation chamber of a mattress was just shipped off to Indianapolis with 30 payments left. Or we could be the Saints, working too long and hard to pay off yesterday's thrills, dancing with financial disaster because we refused to bite a financial bullet when we coulda/shoulda. And even if we don't end up eating kitty kibble in a crumbling house whose gutters are used as fun slides for raccoons, why commit now to spending $50 per month in 2030 that could someday be used on a link to the Marvel Virtual Reality Universe, or Indica of the Month Club deliveries, or ice cream for grandkids? Who wants to be the team that gets outbid for a midtier linebacker or loses a longtime starter because they are paying off voidable years for forgettable veterans?

Some mental math revealed that one modest tax return, a small dip into savings, and two or three fewer trips to the tavern could pay off that fancy bed in about a month. My future self will thank me. Aunt Millie lived to be 99 in 2020, spending decades watching game shows and daytime stories with her head elevated.

I now sleep each night in Win Now mode, without mortgaging my future. Some things are just worth splurging on. That's why it pays for football teams—and everyday citizens, whenever life and the world make it possible—to keep themselves in position to splurge.

Comments

32 comments, Last at 22 May 2022, 5:30pm

1 Always pay for anything that…

Always pay for anything that goes between you and the ground. Mattresses, shoes, tires - the money is worth it.

 

Also I guess I should add a football comment so: boy Zeke is washed. What a great contract.

3 but Henry is costing the…

but Henry is costing the Titans $15 million in cap space this year, money that could have been used to keep A.J. Brown.

Maybe not anymore.

The problem with receivers becoming expensive is that you need so many of them. You need maybe three for a full running back room. You need more like six for a receiver room, and five might be on the field at the same time. They can't all be 10M/yr guys. Teams are starting to experiment with whether or not WRs are fungible, too.

4 Giants release cornerback…

Giants release cornerback James Bradbury because they cannot afford to keep him.
Arctic expedition throws blankets overboard to cut weight so they can stay afloat.

You can't plan for tomorrow if making that decision kills you today.

As a for-instance, an adrenal rush, among other things, basically stops the digestion process. Because it's also driving faster caloric spending, continuing to do so for a prolonged period will cause you to starve to death.

But sometimes that adrenal rush is how you outrun that tiger that's right behind you, because there are worse and more pressing concerns than starving to death eventually. If you are drowning, tossing those blankets is a sound decision. Warmth is cold-comfort to a dead man.

Dolphins social media account posts video of Tua Tagovailoa apparently underthrowing Tyreek Hill.

That's some bad hat, Tua.

And even if we don't end up eating kitty kibble in a crumbling house whose gutters are used as fun slides for racoons

There's poor, and then there's so poor you can't afford the second c in raccoon.

5 I suppose a possible side…

I suppose a possible side effect of the move to RB committees is...will that extend longevity? I.e. at 330 carries per year would you have him for another couple years? 

I wonder if we get some sort of "run count" thing like pitch counts?

6 JT is RB1 silly

Thought at the time of Henry's injury, they should've traded a 7th (or whatever) to Philly for Jordan Howard and just run the same game plan. But alas...lol

Also:

"We rightfully roast the Cowboys for overpaying Zeke and losing Amari Cooper as a result, but Henry is costing the Titans $15 million in cap space this year, money that could have been used to keep A.J. Brown."

That's my beat sir.

I'd have no desire in giving a RB a 2nd contract. Just rotate day 3 backs every few years and you'll be fine. 

7 Why pay a WR twice? The…

In reply to by ImNewAroundThe…

Why pay a WR twice? The Steelers have just rotated day-2 and day-3 WRs since Tommy Maddox was their QB. That's worked out pretty well for them.

8 But that's been, I think,…

But that's been, I think, mostly good fortune. Perhaps it speaks more broadly to their ability to draft and develop, but that's not something you can count on if you are the rest of the league.

Its an underplayed but amazing thing to behold. Hines Ward begets Plax begets Santonio Holmes begets Mike Wallace begets Antonio Brown begets JuJu.

And I'm never ignoring Antwan Randle El, Emmanuel Sanders, Martavius Bryant, and Chase Claypool who were/are useful players that far exceeded their draft slot. 

17 Well, I used to think their…

Well, I used to think their ability to churn out all probowl edge rushers was similar. Until that well dried up eventually. 

Depending on how far you wanna go back. Greg Lloyd begets Jason Gilden begets Joey Porter begets James Harrison begets Lamar Woodley.

And then, the fallow period begins until they landed TJ Watt. 

20 The edge rusher thing was a…

The edge rusher thing was a bit different. Pitt really did play a different style of defense for about a decade that allowed them to target different athletes for production and gave them an advantage in that the top of their board for that position was often valued much lower. For whatever reason the rest of the league didn't copy what they were doing for a long time so the advantage lasted a lot longer than it should have. I guess they just thought Pitt was a 3-4 with a good coordinator, but they weren't playing 3-4 like the other 3-4 teams. So there was luck but it was luck that no one really tried to copy the defense like they did within a year or two of say the Tampa-2 showing up. I'll see if I can dig up the articles on it, but Pitt really did know that they could go after different types of athletes for their defense and had a huge draft advantage because of that. It dried up when other teams started valuing players the same way and Pitt lost that advantage.

The WR thing isn't that. They aren't running a unique offense that allows them to target different talent. Their successful WR have been typical WR profiles.

21 I guess I'll take your word…

I guess I'll take your word for it; but its odd to me that this strategic advantage went ignored for so long. The league is not shy about fast poaching coordinators and schemes from successful teams to the extent that they can. Everyone started hoarding cover 3 players after the Legion of Boom. The tampa 2 made that scheme in vogue for years. The shannahan run scheme spawned an entire tree of coaches profilerating everywhere. Seems odd.

But then, I've long thought that the true schematic advantages of NE and Baltimore have been largely ignored by the league for years. How Baltimore has churned defense every single year or how NE churns their defense and offensive lines every year. So maybe its possible.

I do find it rather amusing that almost no team ever tried to implement the Peyton Manning - Tom Moore offense. Maybe NE did somewhat later on, but no else has. 

32 What was the Manning-Moore offense?

I do find it rather amusing that almost no team ever tried to implement the Peyton Manning - Tom Moore offense.

But what was the Peyton Manning - Tom Moore offense?

I understood at the time, from what analysts were saying, that there wasn't anything schematically "special" about it.  It was just simple plays.  They just had very skilled players executing it. 

Manning himself said after retirement, that most of his reads were determined by how teams played Dallas Clark.  The D tilted their coverage whichever way, and Peyton exploited it. 

It just seemed like the Indy offense was, "Put a whole bunch of talent around Peyton Manning, and let him decide where the ball goes."

 

EDIT:
Here's an in-depth piece from Smart Football from the 2012 offseason on how simple the Peyton Indy offense was:

https://web.archive.org/web/20120524044720/http://smartfootball.com/offense/peyton-manning-and-tom-moores-indianapolis-colts-offense

It's like those Shanahan-Kubiak teams whose rushing offense was entirely Outside Zone & constraint boots.  Execution (and talent).

Also helped to have a QB who understood everything perfectly, and knew when to check into something different.

 

19 the commonality is all of…

the commonality is all of those WR's played their best seasons with Ben Roethlisberger, with the exception of Emmanuel Sanders who was  more impactful as he moved from WR3 for Big Ben to WR2 for Peyton Manning. Plax had a second with the lesser Mannning. Even at his best in TB, AB was nowhere NEAR the player he was with Ben. 

The Steelers scouting department proved great at picking receivers who are very good receivers with Ben tossing the pigskin. And the Steelers were smart to continue the pipeline and not shell out mega bucks, because their WR's really were fungible. Even UDFA's like Eli Rogers had a moment with Big Ben. We'll see if it continues. Say what you want about Ben, but he was a great teammate, always giving props to his O-line, Tight Ends, and WRs and working to try to help them thrive.

31 Since Tomlin became coach …

Since Tomlin became coach (16 drafts,) the Steelers have drafted 18 receivers:

 George Pickens (WR)Calvin Austin III (WR)Chase Claypool (WR)Diontae Johnson (WR)James Washington (WR), JuJu Smith-Schuster (WR), Demarcus Ayers (WR), Sammie Coates (WR), Dri Archer (WR/RB), Martavis Bryant (WR), Markus Wheaton (WR), Justin Brown (WR), Toney Clemons (WR), Emmanuel Sanders (WR), Antonio Brown (WR), Mike Wallace (WR), Limas Sweed (WR), Dallas Baker (WR).

2011 and 2021 were the only years they didn't draft at least one. In 2011 they had Wallace, Brown and Sanders on the roster and in 2021 they had Claypool, Johnson, Washington and Smith-Schuster. 4 are still on the team and all on their first contract. 7 others signed contracts with teams other than the Steelers when they became free agents. 6 were released and not picked up and one was signed to a 2nd contract, then traded.

I view that as above average but not outrageously so. They just had a top tier QB, did the volume thing and do a good job of developing them.

28 The Steelers don't though.

The steelers pay one WR and rotate the rest.

Ward, AB, even Juju got one year.  I think Juju would have stuck around if he had stayed healthy enough to earn a bigger second contract.

What impresses me is how they're able to continually refresh the WR pipeline with rookies.  It's rare that we have to sign a veteran.

9 Depends

“It's your chance to spend four hours per week with a man who will do anything to not spend time with his wife.”

Only during the daytime.

11 Going to interrupt this…

Going to interrupt this latest bit of Titans doomsaying by pointing out it was A.J. Brown whose absence was most felt by the Titans, not Derrick Henry. The Titans could get by on scrabbling together Hilliard and Foreman (and hopefully it won't be the Hilliard and Hassan show this year), but hopefully they can be more frugal with their usage of Henry in the future. The problem with A.J. Brown is that it was hard to pay him $25m/year when he's basically the Richarlison of the NFL, brilliant on his day, but always seems to be coming up with some kind of knock. Traylon Burks won't be Brown, but hopefully he can be more reliable and effective in his own way.

Just don't get too comfy with Brown, Tanier. You'll never know when he wants to skip to the next town.

26 I'm sort of surprised

Brady used to do MNF radio cast interviews weekly. He seems ready made for the booth. However, given his drive I'm a little surprised he doesn't go into coaching. He seems like a guy that could do it. Then again, no one is going to pay him that much money to coach . . . but perhaps the Raiders.

 

The Dolphins season is pretty simple: The front office has basically set themselves up so that they must outperform Flores past two seasons or look like complete idiots. It feels like a lot of pressure for a rookie head coach who is basically stuck between two narratives: many fans see Tua as a great QB ruined by coaching and many fans that see Tua as the boat anchor sinking Miami to perpetual 9-8 seasons. Prediction: tiebreakers have been unkind the past two seasons for Miami, there's a decent chance this season they backdoor into the wildcard. and that looks like progress even if no progress was actually made.