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Don’t Tell Derrick Henry That Running Backs Don’t Matter

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NFL running backs have had a rough go of it recently, with more and more evidence building for the fungibility of the position. As my colleague Josh Hermsmeyer wrote last week, 2020 has provided even more examples of high-profile RBs being replaced by unheralded backups who don’t miss much of a beat. It’s not that running backs do nothing to help their teams win — leaguewide rushing expected points added (EPA) per game is currently the highest it’s been since at least 20061 — but that rushing success is dictated by teammates and coaching as much as by the player carrying the ball.

Still, sometimes you have to admire a good, old-fashioned rushing performance in the mold of history’s greatest RBs — and that’s exactly what Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans is giving us this season. Henry led the NFL in rushing last season with 1,540 yards on the ground (102.7 per game) to go with 16 touchdowns, but he’s improving on those numbers so far in 2020. After tearing through the Houston Texans’ defense on Sunday for 212 yards (!) and two touchdowns, Henry is once again leading the league in yards with 588 — or 83 more than any other rusher in football.

If he could keep this up over the full season, Henry’s current 117.6 yards-per-game pace would rank 17th all-time, sandwiched between Barry Sanders’s 1994 season and Shaun Alexander’s 2005. We haven’t seen a player average so many yards per game in a season since Adrian Peterson did it eight years ago en route to winning MVP honors.

In fact, we are unexpectedly witnessing one of the best performances ever by a RB in back-to-back seasons. Right now, Henry is on pace to become just the 14th player since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to average more than 100 rushing yards per game in two consecutive seasons, essentially joining a who’s-who of great running backs from the era:didn’t crack the 100-yard average even once, though he came close in 2000 and 2001 (and was pretty busy doing all that receiving anyway).

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Henry is in rare two-year rushing company

Most rushing yards per game (YPG) in back-to-back seasons among players who averaged at least 100 yards per game in both seasons, 1970-2020

Rushing YPG 2-Year Total
Player Seasons Year 1 Year 2 Rush Yds YPG
Eric Dickerson 1983-84 113.0 131.6 3,913 122.3
Terrell Davis 1997-98 116.7 125.5 3,758 121.2
O.J. Simpson 1975-76 129.8 107.4 3,320 118.6
Earl Campbell 1979-80 106.1 128.9 3,631 117.1
Shaun Alexander 2004-05 106.0 117.5 3,576 111.8
Barry Sanders 1993-94 101.4 117.7 2,998 111.0
Eric Dickerson 1986-87 113.8 107.3 3,109 111.0
Larry Johnson 2005-06 109.4 111.8 3,539 110.6
Tiki Barber 2005-06 116.3 103.9 3,522 110.1
Edgerrin James 2000-01 106.8 110.3 2,371 107.8
Emmitt Smith 1992-93 107.1 106.1 3,199 106.6
Derrick Henry 2019-20 102.7 117.6 2,128 106.4
Eric Dickerson 1987-88 107.3 103.7 2,947 105.3
LaDainian Tomlinson 2002-03 105.2 102.8 3,328 104.0

Source: Pro-Football-Reference.com

Before Henry, we hadn’t seen a running back pull off the feat since Larry Johnson of the Kansas City Chiefs and Tiki Barber of the New York Giants each did it in 2005 and 2006. And you could have been forgiven for thinking we might not have ever seen it again, as the era of the high-workload primary back has given way to backfield committees and an increased focus on using RBs in the passing game rather than handing them the ball. Henry’s numbers are a throwback to an earlier time, and nobody else is really in the same neighborhood this year. Among 2020 rushers, only Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook (who missed Week 6 with an injury) is even close to 100 yards per game on the ground; he’s averaging 97.8, which is 11 more than the next-highest rusher (Philadelphia’s Miles Sanders, who is also injured) and nearly 20 yards per game behind Henry. Henry is truly in a class of his own.

And that production is helping Tennessee win games. The Titans are averaging 2.95 EPA per game on the ground so far this season, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, which ranks fourth in the NFL behind the Arizona Cardinals, New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens. And they rank second (behind the Kansas City Chiefs) in win probability added on the ground. Henry’s blockers deserve credit for that as well; Tennessee runners are fifth in yards before first contact per rush, with the path being cleared for 3.33 yards per carry before a defender touches the ball carrier. The passing game has clearly been a huge driver of Tennessee’s success, too — QB Ryan Tannehill has the league’s fourth-best Total QBR this season, and the Titans rank second (again, behind K.C.) in passing EPA per game. Henry is far from the only reason that Tennessee is tied for the fourth-best Super Bowl odds this season, according to our prediction model.

But the Tannehill-Henry tandem obviously works great together. Since Tannehill took over as Tennessee’s starter in Week 7 of the 2019 season, the Titans are 14-4 (including the playoffs), with Henry averaging 119.9 rushing yards per game — 35.7 more than any other player — and Tannehill averaging 97.4 passing yards per game off play-action (which ranks second only to Jared Goff of the L.A. Rams at 98.4). By keeping defenses guessing as to whether Henry or Tannehill will hurt them, it’s no surprise that the Titans are the only team to rank among the top five in offensive EPA per game both through the air and on the ground so far this season.

Week 7 should provide an interesting test for Henry and the Titans, in the form of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense. Pittsburgh ranks second in defensive EPA per game overall and first against the run specifically. Steeler opponents are picking up only 2.03 yards before first contact per run, which could prove an antidote to Tennessee’s run-blocking. But if there’s any running back who stands a chance against Pittsburgh’s front seven, it’s Henry — the closest equivalent the modern game has to the dominating rushers of yesteryear.

FiveThirtyEight’s NFL Elo ratings

How each team ranks through Week 6 of the 2020 season, according to our quarterback-adjusted predictions

Chance To …
Rk Team Starting QB QB Rk* Elo Rating Proj. Record Make Playoffs Win Division Win SB
1 Chiefs Mahomes 1 1706 13-3 98% 84% 19%
2 Ravens Jackson 4 1659 12-4 93 47 10
3 Seahawks Wilson 3 1640 12-4 93 68 12
4 Steelers Roethlisberger 10 1636 12-4 93 47 9
5 Titans Tannehill 6 1634 12-4 93 81 9
6 Buccaneers Brady 14 1612 10-6 80 54 8
7 Packers Rodgers 12 1592 11-5 83 49 6
8 Saints Brees 2 1591 9-7 66 38 5
9 Rams Goff 13 1573 9-7 62 15 3
10 Bears Foles 21 1570 11-5 85 48 5
11 49ers Garoppolo 24 1562 8-8 38 6 2
12 Bills Allen 9 1561 10-6 72 63 2
13 Colts Rivers 18 1556 9-7 50 18 2
14 Patriots Newton 17 1544 8-8 42 30 1
15 Raiders Carr 5 1540 9-7 50 12 1
16 Cardinals Murray 7 1534 9-7 52 12 2
17 Browns Mayfield 28 1531 10-6 62 6 1
18 Broncos Lock 32 1504 7-9 20 4 <1
19 Eagles Wentz 22 1476 6-9-1 52 52 <1
20 Falcons Ryan 11 1469 5-11 4 2 <1
21 Texans Watson 8 1460 5-11 4 <1 <1
22 Panthers Bridgewater 15 1456 7-9 18 6 <1
23 Vikings Cousins 23 1455 5-11 6 <1 <1
24 Chargers Herbert 19 1450 6-10 8 <1 <1
25 Lions Stafford 16 1442 7-9 13 2 <1
26 Dolphins Tagovailoa 30 1418 7-9 14 7 <1
27 Bengals Burrow 27 1378 4-11-1 2 <1 <1
28 Cowboys Dalton 29 1367 6-10 27 27 <1
29 Giants Jones 25 1352 4-12 9 9 <1
30 Washington Allen 31 1348 5-11 13 12 <1
31 Jaguars Minshew 20 1323 3-13 <1 <1 <1
32 Jets Darnold✚ 26 1321 2-14 <1 <1 <1

*Ranking among Week 7 starters, according to our QB Elo ratings.

✚ Starter is currently injured and may not play.

Simulations as of Oct. 21, 2020.

Source: ESPN

Looking ahead: Pittsburgh-Tennessee is Elo’s top game of the week, but a close second is New England against San Francisco. The teams are on opposite trajectories — the 49ers had an impressive bounceback win over the Rams last week, while the Patriots suffered an exceedingly rare home loss as a favorite against Denver. New England is at home again in this one, and the Pats are 24-9 in Foxborough when coming off a loss since 2001. But they’ll need more from Cam Newton and a moribund passing attack that ranks 28th in EPA per game, against a Niners defense that has slipped in EPA from No. 2 against the pass last season to No. 12 this year. On the other side, the Pats are also down a bit defensively, and Jimmy Garoppolo looked healthy again versus L.A., though our QB ratings still regard him as a middling starter at best. Maybe Jimmy G. can use this opportunity against his former team to notch a second-straight above-average start for the first time since Week 12 in 2019. But we give the Patriots a 54 percent chance to stop the skid here. Elo’s spread: New England -1

Check out our latest NFL predictions.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

Stream FC Daily on ESPN+
– 2020 MLS Playoffs: Who’s in, schedule and more
– MLS on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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