The Decline and Fall of Derrick Henry
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|
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%|
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|
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.
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.
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!
“The Tua Underthrow”
We cannot believe that Tua lives so rent free in other fanbases heads that this needs to be a thing.
Those of you out there disrespecting Tua’s name, beware.
We are TuAnon.
Expect us. pic.twitter.com/n1nYhP2FPr
— We Are TuAnon (@TheGaluminati) May 11, 2022
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.