On April 29, in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft, the Tennessee Titans drafted a running back out of Alabama by the name of Derrick Henry.
As it goes with drafts, the immediate reactions ran the gamut – shocked, amused, thrilled, confused. The pick seemed to garner unanimous approval from inside the Titans organization and a few outside of it as well.
“If you’re the Tennessee Titans and their fan base, you should like this pick,’’ NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks said after the pick was made. “This is an Eddie George clone, a guy that excels at running between the tackles and off-tackle in a zone-based system. I love how he comes downhill. He is a guy that grinds it out. If I’m the Tennessee Titans, now I can split the load between DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. We can grind it out, protect and alleviate some of the pressure on Marcus Mariota. They’ve talked about this draft being all about Marcus Mariota. Derrick Henry is another beast that takes pressure off of Mariota.”
Of course, not everybody was thinking along the same lines as Brooks. CBS Sports ran a headline that read: “For some reason the Titans drafted Heisman winner Derrick Henry.” Some writers and analysts called it archaic. Others, antiquated. Words like “waste” were littered in post-draft stories when discussing the 45th pick of the 2016 NFL Draft.
It is not difficult to see the ground on which the detractors stood. Here is Tennessee, in an era where passing the football has been proven to be the most efficient way to score points and subsequently win football games, drafting a running back just a month after trading for DeMarco Murray, the 2014 NFL Offensive Player of the Year. Two years before drafting Henry, Tennessee had used a second-round pick on Washington’s Bishop Sankey, who in the ensuing two seasons hadn’t even logged 200 carries.
Why draft another running back?
Because it might just work.
It is not a groundbreaking revelation that the NFL has become a pass-happy league. Whether the transition to an aerial attack has been caused by quarterback- and wide receiver-friendly rules or the prevalence of spread offenses in college football or the wild popularity of 7-on-7 passing leagues in high school football is not very relevant. What matters is that NFL teams are passing more often and more successfully than ever before.
Across the league, teams combined to complete 63 percent of their passes, setting the record for the third year in a row. Since 1932, completion percentage has risen by more than 98 percent, and if you look at the top 38 most-accurate passers of all time, every one of them played in the 1990s or later. There is no arguing that passing has become the most popular method of moving the ball from one side of the field to the other.
But it is not the only way to do so.
In the 2015 season, no team ran the ball more times per game than the Carolina Panthers. They carried the ball 33.2 times per game, which accounted for 49.8 percent of their offensive snaps. They also scored more points than any team in the NFL and claimed the NFC Championship. The team they played in the Divisional round? The Seattle Seahawks, who averaged 30 rushing attempts per game, third-most in the NFL.
That game, which Carolina won 31-24, was a testament to the old school philosophy. Call it archaic or antiquated or whatever you will, but it proved that running the football can still work.
“It is a really diverse running game. It is the most that we’ll see in the NFL. There’s nobody that does more stuff, and it’s basically because the quarterback is such a dynamic part of it,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said of Carolina last year. “They’re willing to run the quarterback inside, outside, lead plays, powers, all of the read stuff as well. This is the most difficult offense that we face.”
That last sentence bears repeating: “This is the most difficult offense that we face.”
More difficult than the pass-happy, Matthew Stafford-led Detroit Lions (39.5 pass attempts per game), or the long-ball-loving Baltimore Ravens, who threw more passes per game (42.2) than any other team in the league. It was more difficult than stopping the Arizona Cardinals despite quarterback Carson Palmer enjoying the finest season of his career.
Carroll has long been a staunch advocate of running the football, from his time at USC — so successful it has since been dubbed the “Golden Era” — to his six-plus years in Seattle. He took over in 2010, inheriting a team that had won just nine games in the previous two seasons combined.
In his first season he won the NFC West. In the past four, Seattle never dipped below 10 wins, claimed its first Super Bowl title, appeared in another, and reached the playoffs each year.
How they did it is quite simple: The Seahawks ran the football.
In 2012, Seattle averaged 33.4 rushing attempts per game, more than any other team in the NFL. In 2013, the year they won the Super Bowl, the Seahawks ran on 52.7 percent of their offensive plays, more than any other team in the NFL. In 2014, Seattle led the league in rushing, and again made it to the Super Bowl. In 2015, it was one of only three teams in the league to average more than 30 rushing attempts per game. One of the remaining two to do so? Carolina, which was in the Super Bowl.
In a radio appearance with ESPN in 2013, Carroll said that rushing is “the most consistent, proven championship formula in the history of this game. When you tie it all together — and it’s not just that we want to run it, it’s about ‘we want to take care of the football,’ ‘we want to own the football,’ and that’s the biggest determining factor for winning and losing.
“So, when you start tying it all together, a balanced offense gives you a better chance of taking care of those issues, better than just going to the throwing game. The throwing game is a great way to go, [but] it’s most reliant on a quarterback that’s got to be there for you … [It’s] the way we want to play. We want to be physical, we want to be tough, we want to attack you, we want to get after you, we want to make sure you know you’ve played a very hard football game; when you play our team, we’re going to beat the hell out of you if we can.
“It’s not about winning just this game or this year, it’s about a long-range approach to winning over a long period of time.”
Carroll, while an outlier, isn’t the only coach to successfully maintain a physical run game. The New England Patriots won the Super Bowl in 2004 while rushing on 51 percent of their offensive plays. That year, Pittsburgh led the league in rushing attempts per game with 38.8, which accounted for more than 60 percent of its offense. Both teams were in the AFC Championship.
The next year, the Steelers claimed the Super Bowl, and no team featured a more prolific rushing attack than Pittsburgh.
In 2007, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Pittsburgh and Washington comprised four of the six teams that rushed more than 30 times per game, and all four made the playoffs. In ’08, Baltimore had the most run-heavy offense (35.8 rushing attempts per game) and made it to the AFC Championship. The Jets made back-to-back AFC Championship appearances in 2009 and ’10, finishing either first or second in rushing attempts per game each year.
There is no magic formula for winning football games. While Carroll is unwavering in his belief that running the ball is the harbinger to victories, you will also notice that almost every successful rushing team in recent memory has been backed up by a stout defense – Pittsburgh, New York, Baltimore, Seattle, Carolina, defensive fortresses all.
Defense and a ground-and-pound style, as Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan noted last year, likely go hand-in-hand: “Seattle has run the ball pretty effectively and I think they’ve won back-to-back championship games, so that probably works pretty good in their favor. They play to their defense and they’re able to control the possessions. They probably play three less possessions a game on defense than every team in the league. Is that a way to win it? It sure looks like it to me.”
Perhaps that’s what Tennessee was thinking when it took Henry back in April. He and Murray would create what has already been dubbed a “Thunder and Thunder” rushing attack – two downhill runners who seek contact, not avoid it. Physical. Brutal. Battering. Grinders.
For all the doubters on draft night, there were scant few in the preseason, when Henry or Murray or both devastated defenses weekly. There was Henry’s 7-carry, 62-yard first quarter in a 21-10 win over the Miami Dolphins, and the 288 total rushing yards against the Chargers.
“That’s how we want it to look,’’ Henry said after the San Diego game. “It was my first NFL game, so I was ready to get out there and make something happen. We definitely want to be a physical team, especially running the ball. We want to be smash mouth.”
In Week 1, during a 25-16 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, they were not.
Tennessee ran the ball just 22 times while airing it out 41. Mariota threw a pick-six and botched a hand-off with Murray, and the fumble was returned for a touchdown. Not the best audition for Thunder and Thunder, which appears to be – like many nicknames – a hastily awarded moniker, as Henry finished with only 5 carries.
It’s far too early to determine whether Tennessee’s power backfield will work or not. After all, even Carroll went 14-18 in his first two years in Seattle. Building a brand takes time.
“When the ball is in their hands, they’re a threat,” Titans coach Mike Mularkey said of Murray and Henry in his press conference following the loss to the Vikings.
It’s just the simple matter of putting the ball in their hands and keeping it there. Smash-mouth style.