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The Big Back has always piqued our curiosity, from Bronko Nagurski to Marion Motley to Jim Brown, among a host of others.
And now, during this quarterback era, Derrick Henry has emerged as a titan.
“His game has blossomed to the point where he’s emerged as not just a top running back, but one of the more lethal weapons in the entire NFL,” legendary Titans Big Back Eddie George told Serby Says.
“With Saquon [Barkley] down, Derrick Henry is my favorite guy to watch. You’re a damn fool if you don’t like to watch Derrick Henry run,” former Giants Big Back Brandon Jacobs told Serby Says.
King Henry has carried the Titans on his back the last two seasons — 1,540 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns in 2019 and 1,257 yards and 12 TDs so far in 2020. He has gashed defenses for 13 100-yard games in his last 19, and is the leader in the clubhouse for a back-to-back rushing title.
Giants safety Logan Ryan got to the AFC Championship game last season with Henry. Asked what makes him unique, Ryan said: “I think his size obviously, his breakaway speed, his stiff-arm, you just don’t see too many running backs that are 6-foot-4 and can run away from DBs at 240 pounds, there’s no one else like that. Derrick’s someone who always works on his game and is gonna try to get better, and he becomes better as the game goes along as he gets more touches. Like a lot of great players, he doesn’t wind down, he actually gets stronger throughout the game.”
George, a four-time Pro Bowler who was 6-4, 235, rushed for 10,441 career yards and 68 TDs and caught 268 passes and 10 TDs. Give Henry Gale Sayers’ 18 inches of daylight and beware.
“He’s setting up his runs a lot better, he’s running behind his pads, guys don’t want to challenge him in the open field … and once he gets into the second and third level of the defense, he either can take it to the house or somebody’s gonna pay dearly for getting in front of him,” George said.
“His ability to cut in the open field as well, too. No second step in his cut, it’s very decisive. He’s added a jump cut to his repertoire, a spin, and he’s become more elusive in between the tackles.”
In other words, Henry can impose his will and break your spirit.
“He’s just as deadly at his own 1-yard line,” George said, “as he is at the opposing defense’s 1-yard line and everything in between that.”
Jacobs was 6-4, 260 pounds when he won two Super Bowls with the Giants in the post-Tiki Barber Era and is the franchise leader with 60 rushing TDs. Henry is listed at 6-3, 247.
“I can look at him and tell, he’s 250-plus,” Jacobs said.
Henry’s diabolical stiff-arm was not a part of the Jacobs arsenal.
“I used my stiff-arm one time against the Patriots in 2007 and I got every ligament in my finger torn stuck in a face mask so I stopped doing it after that, and I just started lowering my shoulder and running people over,” Jacobs said.
His most memorable trucking came at the start of the 2007 NFC Championship game at frigid Lambeau Field against Packers CB Charles Woodson.
“He was coming in full speed,” Jacobs recalled. “He was the contain guy. He was out of control. I had 15 yards left still before the sideline.”
Jacobs had Henry’s 4.5 speed and could change direction.
“For some reason I decided to lower my shoulder and run him over,” Jacobs said.
He knew exactly what the reason was, and it lit a raging fire under the Giants.
“I wanted there to be one less great player on the field for the Green Bay Packers that night,” Jacobs said.
Former Giants GM and NFL encyclopedia Ernie Accorsi has for decades recognized the menace of The Big Back.
“I don’t care if I was playing on a sandlot behind my house, tackle football with no pads, when there’s a big guy running,,” Accorsi told Serby Says, “you don’t want to tackle him.”
Accorsi remembers watching the 6-1, 238-pound Motley.
“We got a television in 1950,” Accorsi said. “He was a little more upright. People would just bounce off his chest. Paul Brown always had those kind of backs. There’s nothing that demoralized a defense more than when you’re running the ball on ‘em, especially the last quarter, and you can’t stop ‘em. And the great big backs seem to get stronger the more you give ‘em the ball.”
Accorsi places the 6-2, 228-pound Brown in a league of his own, but is thoroughly impressed with King Henry.
“He plays like a halfback, even though he’s the old-style big back,” Accorsi said. “He can go the distance at any time, once he breaks the first line of defense, now he’s in against the secondary, and he’s bigger than everybody. He makes big, long touchdown runs when they have to have it to win a game. He’s a great back.”
Bobby Ramsay coached Henry at Yulee (Fla.) High School and once watched him steamroll Jackson High School for 510 rushing yards.
“I think you fell into the trap of worrying too much about how big he is and not worrying about how fast he is,” Ramsay said.
“We almost had to give up game-planning because every week we saw a brand new defense that a team hadn’t run all year long to try to slow him down, whether it was six down linemen, whether it was five down linemen, whether it was seven down linemen, we saw six down linemen-five linebackers, and you kinda liked to see that because you’re sitting there going, ‘OK all he really has to do is hit one crease and he’s gone.’ ”
It was love at first sight for Ramsay at Henry’s first practice.
“We had him in
an inside run drill, and we had three pretty good defensive linemen, none of ’em got blocked on that play,” Ramsay recalled. “I remember one of ’em kinda hit him in the thigh, one of ’em hit him in the waist, one of ’em kinda hit him in the shoulder, and he kinda was like Optimus Prime like making his way back to the line of scrimmage.
“And then the next play we ran the same play and he busted it through, and myself and the offensive coordinator were standing next to each other, we had kinda looked at each other out of the side of our eye like, ‘Yeah, there’s our starter.’ ”
College recruiters/coaches spread lies about Alabama coach Nick Saban intending to move Henry to defensive end. Saban cleared that up emphatically in his office when Henry asked him during his first campus visit if it were true.
“Saban kinda starts rocking back and forth in his chair and you could tell he was upset that people were saying things that weren’t true about his opinion of Derrick,” Ramsay said. “Some of the stuff’s not printable, but I remember he kinda built up to a point, he said, ‘There’s one guy in this whole f—–g place that makes every decision — ME.’ ”
Henry (1,986 rushing yards and 23 rushing TDs) won the Heisman Trophy in 2015. The proud high school coach travels back in time when he watches King Henry’s demoralizing stiff-arm in action.
“I kind of feel like at times the NFL DBs struggle with him the same way that the high school kids did,” Ramsay said.
Back to the Future.