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How Henry Can Repeat as NFL Rushing Champion

It has been more than a decade since the last time a player finished on top in back-to-back years.

If Derrick Henry wins a second straight NFL rushing title, he will be the first in more than a decade and just the third since the turn of the century to do so.

In other words: It does not happen often.

Still, oddsmakers don't just think it’s possible, they believe it is probable.

Caesars Sportsbook considers the Tennessee Titans running back the favorite to finish as the NFL’s 2020 rushing leader at +300 (or 3:1). Next is Dallas’s Ezekiel Elliott (+600), the league leader in 2016 and 2018. Then comes last season’s runner-up, Cleveland’s Nick Chubb (+800), Saquon Barkley of the N.Y. Giants (+1100), Las Vegas’s Josh Jacobs (+1200) and Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey (+1300).

However, the over/under for Henry’s 2020 total is 1,199.5 yards, which actually is less than that of Barkley and McCaffrey (1,249.5) as well as Elliott (1,229.5).

Henry, therefore, is hardly a lock.

LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006 and 2007 was the last repeat rushing champion. Before that was Edgerrin James in 1999 and 2000, Barry Sanders in 1996 and 1997 and Emmitt Smith, who won three from 1991-93. All are Hall of Famers.

Based on what those legends did in defending their rushing titles, here is what Henry likely must do to put himself in their category.

• Stay healthy: This is obvious. If you want to pile up yards, you have to have a significant number of carries and the only way to get enough carries is to be on the field.

Not only did Tomlinson, James, Sanders and Smith play all 16 games when they defended their rushing crowns, but they also played all 16 games when they won it the first time (Smith’s third came in just 14 games played).

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Henry missed one game in 2019 but prior to that played through a nagging hamstring injury for several weeks and has missed just two contests in his career. Durability has not been an issue thus far and there is no reason to think it will be this year.

Yet things happen. If they do, it is worth noting that Henry is the NFL’s leader among active players with a 4.77 yards-per-carry average (minimum 750 carries). That means he won’t need the number of carries some others would to get the necessary yards, but he still has to be on the field.

Get to the points: This is where Henry will need help from the rest of the offense.

Tomlinson’s second rushing title came as part of an offense that finished fifth in the NFL scoring. James’ Colts finished fourth in scoring in 2000 and did Sanders’ Lions in 1997. Smith’s Cowboys scored more points than all but one other team in 1992 and again in 1993.

James collected just shy of 60 percent of his yards in 2000 when the Colts had a lead. Tomlinson got 56 percent of his total in 2007 with an advantage on the scoreboard, and Smith’s Cowboys consistently forced opponents to play from behind. Sanders was the exception in this regard. Despite the fact that Detroit finished 9-7 in 1997, fewer than half his yards (40 percent) came with the lead.

Tennessee finished 10th in scoring offense in 2019 and topped 400 points (402, to be exact) for the first time since 2003. That was good. It likely will have to be a little better this time.

Finish strong: This plays right into Henry’s wheelhouse. He roared to the top last season with five 100-yard games in his last six appearances. He capped that run with a season-high 211 yards in Week 17 against Houston.

It is a formula that has worked for others. Tomlinson’s second rushing crown included six 100-yard performances, three in the last four weeks. James topped 100 yards four times in the last five weeks to finish on top for the second straight year. Smith had three (plus a 99-yard effort) in his last five games in 1992 and four in his last five contests in 1993.

Of Henry’s 3,833 career rushing yards, 1,576 (41.1. percent) have come in games played after the start of December. He has rushed for 100 yards or more 10 times, six on Dec. 1 or later, including three of his top four games all-time.

If he is close as the end of the season draws near, expect him to pull away once again.