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A parable of the King

As Tennesseans #TitanUp with the team’s riveting playoff run, we take a look at the success of Derrick Henry as a business tale: how to devise a strategy that reacts to changes in cyclical markets — and utilizes an uncommon asset in a 250-pound bruiser to capture the attention of the nation.

As we enter the second full week of 2020, a major story in the sports world — and definitely in our state — is the almost logic-defying success of the Tennessee Titans. After knocking out the New England Patriots, the 9-win 7-loss Titans bulldozed the top-seed Baltimore Ravens and their predicted 2019 MVP quarterback, Lamar Jackson.

Within the Titans’ success is a story in itself: the resurgence of running back Derrick Henry, who has been almost an afterthought among his peers until this year. And, because we’re an organization that empowers a statewide network of resources that support Tennessee’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, we think there’s a neat parable in his recent dominance.

With Henry, the Titans have sparked discussion questioning the conventional way NFL teams operate, all while illustrating the impact of leveraging a unique asset at a key moment in the league’s history.

This capability for market disruption is something we look for and encourage in our network of partners and founders supporting Tennessee’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

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The story essentially looks like this:

  • Based on current analytical wisdom of certain plays’ expected value, NFL offenses start getting faster-paced and more spread out, with increased emphasis on passing rather than rushing the ball. Generally, they use running backs around the upper end of 5 feet tall, hovering around 200–215 pounds, who can run fast and catch the football, and change direction quickly. This opens up the field and creates more territory for defenses to cover, because they aren’t just going to run the ball linearly.
  • To catch up and cover more of the field, NFL defenses start fielding faster defensive players who are generally smaller than in previous years, but more athletic, in order to keep up with fast running backs and receivers for all these pass plays.
  • Enter 6’3″, 250-pound running back Derrick Henry: significantly bigger and taller than this new breed of running back, though he can’t play the role of receiver as effectively as the other running backs, and typically charges forward in a straight line.
  • Due to this shift in defenses to adapt to newer passing offenses and running backs, the smaller defensive players are literally being run over by Derrick Henry. The Titans will occasionally hand it off to him over and over again until he breaks out a big run and scores.

A natural market shift

While Henry is the headline, it should be said that the Titans have a well-rounded supporting cast behind him that’s fueling their playoff run.

But Henry is exposing flaws in the conventional wisdom of calling plays and selecting players — a result of a natural market shift in what’s considered “valuable” in the NFL. Obviously, other football teams have been successful this year, but the Titans have been uniquely successful this postseason by playing to their strengths, identifying a flaw in the market, and utilizing their uncommon asset in a 250-pound bruiser to capture the attention of the nation.

This Sunday, we’ll see whether it’s a strategy that will take them all the way to the Super Bowl.