Derrick Henry injury helps illustrate that running back abuse alive and well in the NFL

Steve Brownlee

This season-ending injury suffered by Tennessee’s Derrick Henry has to bum you out — unless your team will be playing them somewhere down the line, I suppose.

But I feel bad because I’m firmly in that camp that believes he was shortening his career — maybe drastically — with the heavy, heavy usage he’s gotten the past few years.

It’s become well known for awhile that production for the vast majority of running backs drops off by age 30 — sometimes earlier — and that those players aren’t worth signing for big money if those contracts go beyond that age.

Players like all-time greats Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders were the antithesis of that, but that’s part of what made them great. They were also guys, especially Sanders, who could avoid pounding hits more often than they took them.

Looking at an online report by Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he said Henry was on pace for an NFL-record 507 carries this season.

Last year, he carried the ball 378 times for his 2,027 yards and the year before was 303 carries for 1,540.

So you’re asking a player to ram his body against the biggest, baddest defenders 300, 400, maybe even 500 times — and that’s just when they actually have the ball.

Those 300 or more collisions are the same ones that make you cringe if a quarterback is involved in even one of them.

You know, the kind that ended Jameis Winston’s season Sunday, for instance.

I remember when I first heard about the abuse that supposedly durable running backs take back in the late 1990s with Jamal Anderson of the Atlanta Falcons.

Specifically, 1998, when the Dirty Birds came out of nowhere, going from a losing record to 14-2 and the franchise’s first time in the Super Bowl.

Anderson was a key component of that turnaround as he ran for 1,846 yards by carrying the ball a then-NFL record 410 times. It’s still No. 2 on the list after KC’s Larry Johnson carried the rock 416 times in ’06.

Look at Anderson’s career stats to show what that did to him. The previous two years he increased his carries, starting at 232 in 1996, then 290 in 1997 before he broke the 400 barrier in ’98 at age 26.

Then what? Try 19 — that’s nineteen, one-nine — carries in 1999 at age 27.

He got back on the Dirty Bird Express or whatever they called it for 282 carries in 2000, then he had just 55 carries in 2001 at age 29.

And that’s it, that’s where his career ends, at least as a player who got to carry the ball.

All washed up at age 29.

Remember that when you want your running back carrying the ball 30, 35, maybe 40 times a game, every week. It might work once in awhile, but it sure doesn’t seem like a winning formula, at least not in the NFL where just about every hit is a big one.

Now onto the big picks of the week:


Today, 8:20 p.m.

New York Jets at Indianapolis — Sure, the Jets beat the supposedly No. 1 team in the AFC, Cincinnati, on Sunday. Certainly nothing against head coach and NMU graduate Robert Saleh, but I’ve got to see it twice to believe it. Colts, 30-23.


Sunday, 1 p.m.

Minnesota at Baltimore — I already was leaning toward Baltimore, but I think the shooting of starting linebacker Malik Harrison by a stray bullet outside a Cleveland nightclub on Sunday night should pull this team even tighter together coming off its bye. Ravens, 27-19.


New England at Carolina — The Panthers broke a losing streak Sunday at Atlanta, but don’t you think New England coach Bill Belichick has a late Halloween surprise for a quarterback he tormented for several years with the Jets, Sam Darnold. Or whoever might replace Darnold if he doesn’t pass concussion protocol. Patriots, 33-20.


Cleveland at Cincinnati — Cincy is turning into a roller-coaster team, which is fine if you can keep up with their ups and the downs. Losing to the Jets was a major downer, my hippie friends would say, so take the Bengals, 29-20.


Denver at Dallas — Will Dak Prescott lose his job to Cooper Rush? Not when he’s healthy. Either way, the QB situation seems fine for the time being, especially against a Broncos team that just lost Von Miller to a trade with the Rams. Cowboys, 34-24.


Buffalo at Jacksonville — The Jaguars’ offense is still in its infancy. It might go scrambling back for the womb facing Buffalo. Bills, 27-13.


Houston at Miami — Aah, an elimination game, but no, not the kind you normally think of. In this game, the loser — which will actually be the winner — will all but be eliminated from challenging the Lions for the No. 1 draft pick in 2022. That’s because these are the only one-win teams in the league. Flip a coin, but really, I’ll just take the home team in what ought to be a stunning display of offense. Dolphins, 12-9.


Atlanta at New Orleans — OK, the Saints lose Jameis Winston at QB and they still beat Tom Brady & Co. Apparently, backup signal caller Trevor Siemian is New Orleans’ new secret weapon, though what I heard is that its running game and ferocious defense were the true weapons. Saints, 28-17.


Las Vegas at New York Giants — Already flying under the radar, Vegas had its bye and nobody noticed that either. The Giants could urgently use a bye. Raiders, 27-16.


Sunday, 4 p.m.

Los Angeles Chargers at Philadelphia — Don’t believe the mirage the Lions gave Philly that all is good in the City of Brotherly Love. Chargers, 24-17.


Green Bay at Kansas City — I originally wrote about this pick before the announcement that Aaron Rodgers has to miss this game with a positive COVID-19 test. I picked the Packers then to win 41-33, but I’ll have to change it to the Chiefs winning by that same score. Chiefs, 41-33.


Arizona at San Francisco — Don’t make Kyler Murray angry. Ah, well, don’t make the rest of Arizona team angry like the Pack did a week ago. San Fran will be the ones who are sorry. Cardinals, 34-20.


Sunday, 8:20 p.m.

Tennessee at Los Angeles Rams — This was going to be a really interesting Sunday night game, though the Titans still looked outnumbered. Now without Derrick Henry, they’re really outnumbered. Rams, 35-19.


Monday, 8:15 p.m.

Chicago Bears at Pittsburgh Steelers — This should bring up memories of Mike Ditka vs. Lynn Swann (though I don’t think they ever faced each other) or Rocky Bleier vs. Gale Sayers (also different decades, I believe).

Now they’re a couple of sometimes-hot, sometimes-cold messes. The Bears seem like the current hot mess, while Pittsburgh’s mess is just simmering a little. Steelers, 30-27.


Last week — 8-7, 53 percent. Season — 79-43, 65 percent.

Steve Brownlee can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252. His email address is sbrownlee@miningjournal.net.


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