Derrick Henry has not changed football with his blend of size, speed and power. He serves as a reminder – perhaps a last bastion – of what the sport was before analytics and innovation led to the proliferation of high-tech passing offenses.
That is what makes the Tennessee Titans running back so appealing to so many, according to Thursday’s SI.com cover story titled Working Stiff.
The headline is a nod to what has become Henry’s signature move – the stiff-arm – and the profile, penned by Robert O’Connell, takes a deep dive into how that move and the other aspects of Henry’s game make him a fan favorite – he is without question the Titans’ most transcendent star in well over a decade – even as front offices find fault with the limited scope of his skills. He is not Alvin Kamara or Christian McCaffery, guys who are as dangerous as pass receivers as they are runners. But he has the potential to light up the internet as much as anyone in the game, for one simple reason.
“Normally, in the NFL, you’re talking about the slightest of differences in athletic ability and dexterity,” CBS play-by-play announcer Ian Eagle said in the piece. But “when someone is so dominant in that manner, it’s hard not to notice. (Henry) is a wrecking ball.”
It was not always that way. According to his high school coach, Henry’s natural inclination was to try to run around potential tacklers. It was only through the study of an earlier generation of runners, including former Titans great Eddie George, that he learned the value of the power game.
Tennessee’s current coaching staff takes advantage of Henry’s unique attributes and ability with a stretch zone scheme designed force opposing defensive backs to try to tackle him.
“They don’t want to see him when they’re running downhill and he’s coming at an angle, when he can throw his stiff-arm,” Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson, now an NFL Network analyst and the last back-to-back rushing champion (Henry is on pace to be the next), said of those last unlucky safeties or corners. “They’re at his mercy.”
Plus, there is something familiar about the stiff-arm. As the NFL continues to evolve in the name of safety, technology and ingenuity, those who watch value those things that they have long known as a part of the balance with violence and athleticism.
The stiff-arm is a living relic from football’s vicious evolution. It is not especially dangerous, all told—the primary effect of a well-executed stiff-arm tends to be a healthy dose of embarrassment—but it nevertheless revives an antiquated attitude. It makes a case that football remains, at its root, a contest between people trying to move one another backward.
Finally, many can’t get their minds around newfangled statistics such as WAR, DVOA, DYAR and the like.
Conversely, everyone understands when a smaller man – or sometimes a larger one – takes on a guy like Henry and gets the worst of it. And that includes those on the field.
A physical run game “becomes the passion, the heartbeat of a football team,” Tomlinson said in the piece. “It’s good, sometimes, to have that long pass—that’s nice, everybody likes it—but what football players truly like is knocking a man back against his will, and the back coming through the hole, making a big run. It demoralizes a defense.”