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The eye-opening lesson the Bucs should learn from the Titans’ surprising playoff run

“If only we had Derrick Henry” would be the wrong conclusion.
Titans running back Derrick Henry is the first player to gain 377 rushing yards in his team’s first two playoff games. [JULIO CORTEZ  |  Associated Press]
Titans running back Derrick Henry is the first player to gain 377 rushing yards in his team’s first two playoff games. [JULIO CORTEZ | Associated Press]
Published Jan. 13
Updated Jan. 15

Neanderthal Football Guy came out of hiding this weekend. The occasion: to revel in the Ravens’ elimination from the NFL playoffs.

Baltimore had it coming. It dared to challenge football convention. Instead of forcing Lamar Jackson to be a traditional dropback pocket passer, the Ravens built a versatile offense around their multidimensional quarterback. Putting players in position to succeed — the audacity! The unmitigated gall!

Thing is, it worked. During the regular season, Baltimore led in the NFL in points per drive (3.1), yards per drive (41.8) and plays per drive (6.8). The offense seldom punted and rarely went three-and-out. And Jackson? All he did was make history. He became the first quarterback to pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a single season. He led his team to a league-high 14 wins and, for the first time in team history, the conference’s No. 1 seed and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

On Saturday, what had been working stopped working. The Ravens scored a touchdown on only one of their four trips inside the red zone. They turned the ball over three times. They failed on all four of their fourth-down conversion attempts. Meanwhile, the Titans whaled away, with Derrick Henry delivering one jaw-rattling run after another. The final score: Tennessee 28, Baltimore 12.

Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson passed for 365 yards and rushed for 143 on Saturday. He also threw two interceptions and lost a fumble. [NICK WASS | Associated Press]

What happened? A bad game at the wrong time. But to Neanderthal Football Guy, forever a prisoner of the moment, it was a complete repudiation of the Ravens and their accomplishments.

Pound the rock! Running the ball is back! Still a winning formula! Ungh!!!!!

You wonder what the Buccaneers’ shot-callers were thinking as they watched the Titans celebrate.

“If only we had Derrick Henry” would be the wrong conclusion. Sure, it would be nice to have a 6-foot-3, 250-pound human bulldozer in the backfield, but it’s worth noting a few things:

• There is one Derrick Henry, and Tennessee had to use a second-round draft pick in 2016 to get him.

• Unless you’re a Titans fan, you probably hadn’t thought about him until recently. His success this postseason is unprecedented. No player has ever gained 377 rushing yards in his team’s first two playoff games.

• Henry has rushed for at least 180 yards five times in his career. Three of those performances have come in the past three weeks. In other words, beware of recency bias.

• Also beware of using yards per carry as a measure of efficiency. As Football Outsiders noted, about 60 percent of Henry’s yardage against the Ravens came on three runs. Thirteen of his 30 carries resulted in gains of fewer than 2 yards, six resulted in a first down and none resulted in a touchdown.

• Running the ball is not the “winning formula” old-school analysts and fans purport it to be. They’re looking for confirmation of what they already believe. In general, teams don’t win when they run. They run when they’re winning. So says math.

No doubt, Henry has been productive — historically so — but how much has he contributed to the Titans’ margins of victory? Thanks to expected points, we can quantify his impact. Expected points isn’t some new-fangled advanced statistic; it has been around for decades. Bob Carroll, Pete Palmer and John Thorn introduced us to the concept in their 1988 book The Hidden Game of Football.

By comparing the expected value of a down-distance-field position situation at the start of a play and the expected value of a down-distance-field position situation at the end of a play, we can measure the value of individual plays. As it turns out, the Titans’ run game is not the advantage it seems to be.

In Tennessee’s win over New England a week ago, the pass offense added 0.07 expected points per play. The run offense added 0.08.

In Tennessee’s win over Baltimore on Saturday, the pass offense added 0.22 expected points per play. The run offense added 0.21.

Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill has yet to pass for 100 yards in a game this postseason. [JULIO CORTEZ | Associated Press]

So, despite Henry’s historically high output and quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s historically low output, the value of the contributions on a per-play basis were about the same. (And, no, Henry’s runs haven’t set up play-action passes. There is no relationship between running — frequency or effectiveness — and play-action pass success.)

It’s true that the final four teams left in the playoffs — the Chiefs, Titans, 49ers and Packers — can run the ball, but they have something else in common, something more important: Their quarterback play has been exceptional.

All four quarterbacks finished in the top 13 this season in pass DVOA, or defense-adjusted value over average, Football Outsiders’ measure of efficiency. Patrick Mahomes ranked third, Tannehill fifth, Jimmy Garoppolo 11th and Aaron Rodgers 13th. Jameis Winston, by the way, ranked 25th. This quarterback quartet took care of the football, throwing a combined 28 interceptions, two fewer than Winston.

The numbers prove that the most meaningful difference between the Titans and Bucs offenses this season wasn’t how well they ran the ball. The most meaningful difference was that Tennessee’s coaches didn’t stay the course with a quarterback they didn’t trust. They benched Marcus Mariota after six games and a 2-4 start. With Tannehill as their quarterback, the Titans have won nine of their past 12. The Bucs allowed Winston to continue throwing games away.

Related: Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota share the same fatal flaw, and we ignored it

This isn’t to say Henry hasn’t contributed to Tennessee’s success. Tannehill’s efficiency, however, has been the difference-maker. He finished the regular season first in yards per pass (9.6) and second to only Jackson in touchdown percentage (7.7).

So, no, pounding the rock is not back in vogue. Saturday’s game was a blip. Pass plays are still more valuable than run plays.

Take note, Neanderthal Football Guy. The battle has been fought. The nerds have won. They’ve breached the gates. They’ve reached the front offices of numerous teams throughout the league. Football isn’t going backward.

Change isn’t linear, but it is inevitable. Adapt or die.

Statistics in this report are from Football Outsiders and Pro Football Reference. Contact Thomas Bassinger at tbassinger@tampabay.com. Follow @tometrics

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