Over time, sports evolve as advanced stats give teams and coaches different ideas of what positions on a team are more important than others. In football, that means changes to offensive playbooks and which positions teams focus on to try to lead them to victories. The quarterback is obviously the centerpiece of the offense, and always will be, but as teams have started to focus more on a passing attack in recent years NFL running backs have seen their importance to teams lessen as receivers get more of the spotlight.
Running backs taking a back seat to receivers is largely a leaguewide trend, but Derrick Henry is trying to send a message to the “experts” who are pushing that narrative and prove them wrong.
Are running backs less important than in the past?
FiveThirtyEight breaks down the belief that running backs aren’t as important to NFL teams as they once were by pointing out that the starters are easily replaceable. There have been a lot of injuries to star players in 2020, and at the running back position, the backups have done a pretty good job of filling in.
When the Panthers lost Christian McCaffrey — the league’s highest-paid back — to a high ankle sprain in Week 2, journeyman backup Mike Davis took over and performed well.
The Panthers won the first three games they played with Davis as their lead back, and in that three-game stretch, he scored three touchdowns and averaged 117 yards from scrimmage per game.
That makes it seem like the offensive system — including coaching and the O-line — are as important to the running game as the actual back.
Derrick Henry is trying to prove backs still have value in the NFL
Derrick Henry wants to send a message to people that running backs still matter in the NFL. Through Week 7, his 663 rushing yards are more than 100 more than the second-best runner, rookie Clyde Edwards-Helaire — and that is with Edwards-Helaire playing one extra game than Henry because the Chiefs haven’t had their bye yet.
Through six games, Henry is averaging 110.5 yards per game, which puts him on pace to have one of the best rushing yards/game averages in NFL history.
He is also on pace to run for more than 1,700 yards for the season, something that hasn’t been done in the league since 2014. Henry can also get close to 20 rushing touchdowns if he keeps up this type of production.
Derrick Henry isn’t a one-year wonder
Henry is having a good 2020, but he’s also in the midst of potentially one of the best two-year periods of any running back in NFL history. He was the league’s rushing leader last year with 1,540 yards and looks like he’ll lead the league again this season.
Henry is on pace to become the 14th player since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 to average at least 100 rushing yards per game in back-to-back season, and he would be the first player to do it since Larry Johnson and Tiki Barber both accomplished the feat in the 2005 and 2006 campaigns.
The 13 players who have done that so far is a who’s who of running backs, with a list that also includes Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, Barry Sanders, and Emmitt Smith.
With teams increasingly going to running back-by-committee, Henry is one of the few backs in the league who remains the primary workhorse in the backfield — and he can handle the load.
After carrying the ball 303 times last year, he’s on pace to surpass that number this year with 143 carries through seven games. Henry’s performance this year helped lead the Titans to a 5-0 start before losing by a touchdown to the undefeated Steelers.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference