Earlier this week, I made an appearance on A Numbers Game with my friend Gill Alexander. In previewing Cincinnati at Tennessee, I discussed the return of Derrick Henry and made the following comparison with his back up D’Onta Foreman for the 2021 season:
- Derrick Henry – 4.3 yards per carry, 3.32 yards after contact
- D’Onta Foreman – 4.3 yards per carry, 2.90 yards after contact
In suggesting the equality of these two players, Gill asked me a good question: “Does that sound logical to you?” His face looked like I had made a decision to punt on 4th and 1 from midfield.
To examine the importance of Henry, let’s look at two interesting results in football analytics.
First, consider the argument that the running game sets up the play action pass, one of the most efficient plays in football. With the return of Henry, defenses will focus on stopping him and open up passes down the field.
Dr. Ben Baldwin, now with The Athletic, did a comprehensive study of the relation between rushing and play action for Football Outsiders. As an example of the completeness of his study, he dug down to the play level and asked how the number of successful rushes in the previous 10 plays impacted play action.
Dr. Baldwin found no relationship between running the ball and play action effectiveness. This includes the many different ways he examined the data on the team and play level.
Of course, Derrick Henry could be the unicorn that breaks this rule on the micro level.
Second, let’s look at another argument for Henry, which I will paraphrase based on a Twitter response to my segment with Gill:
When Henry lines up in the backfield, it brings eight guys into the box. This lets AJ & Julio run free. I love analytics but sometimes you need to trust what we are watching, and 22 puts fear in the defense.
One of the implications of this statement is that Derrick Henry makes defenses more predictable in the number of defenders in the box.
To examine this premise, let’s look at the work of Dr. Eric Eager of PFF. Based on the comprehensive charting of PFF, he can look at the schemes that a defense runs, which includes number of defenders in the box. Dr. Eager looked at the predictability of scheme based on Shannon Entropy, one of most fascinating ideas in applied mathematics.
For example, Dr. Eager can look at relation between two quantities:
- rush offense by success rate
- predictability of scheme on defense
Among the different metrics studied, he found little relationship between rushing efficiency and predictability in defensive scheme (subscription required). Defenses do not seem to become more predictable in the presence of a better rush offense.
He acknowledged that there could be a relationship on the micro level, meaning that Derrick Henry could be the unicorn that breaks these league wide trends.
At the end of my segment on A Numbers Game, Gill and I agreed on one thing: a factor more important than Derrick Henry is the health of stud WRs A.J. Brown and Julio Jones for Tennessee.
We will see how the return of Henry affects the Titans as a 3.5 point favorite against Cincinnati. However, don’t expect too much from Tennessee during the playoffs.
FanDuel has Tennessee’s odds to win the Super Bowl at +850, a 10.5% break even probability. This is 6th highest probability in the NFL and lower than that of the Los Angeles Rams.
Football betting with a PhD edge
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