NFL: Derrick Henry and the blip in the radar

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Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) rushes for a touchdown against the Houston Texans during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Houston. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)

In one of the most irregular and interesting seasons in NFL history, there were postponements, a game on every single day of the week, injuries and a significant absence of fans. But out of all the wackiness, the most interesting thing to happen during the 2020 NFL regular season was the presence of Derrick Henry, the star running back of the Tennessee Titans.

Henry joined an elite club this season, becoming the eighth person ever, and the first since Adrian Peterson in 2012, to rush for over 2,000 yards in a single season. Entering the final game of the regular season, Henry needed 223 yards to cross the mark and he finished the game with 250, his third game rushing for 200 or more yards. Not only did he crush the rushing leaderboards, but he also did it all on a franchise tag.

Henry finished his phenomenal season with exactly 2,027 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns while leading the league in rushing for the second straight season, the first person to accomplish this feat since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006 and 2007. His maximum effort helped the Tennessee Titans secure their first division title since 2008 and their second consecutive playoff appearance. Henry is going to get a massive payday soon.

Henry is the all-time leader in rushing yards in high school football with 12,154 yards and fifth all time in rushing touchdowns with 150. Henry then went to the University of Alabama, where he won a Heisman trophy in 2015 and finished his collegiate experience with 3,591 yards, 2,219 in his junior season, and 42 touchdowns. After getting drafted by the Titans in 2016, Henry began his professional career with two mediocre seasons, failing to reach 800 yards rushing in either of them. However, after the first half of the 2018 season where he rushed for 300 yards, a special surge began in Henry that has led to his incredible performances and rise as the number one rusher in the league. 

Over the second half of the season, Henry managed to squeak out a thousand-yard season by having an incredible four-game stretch where he rushed for a total of 585 yards and scored in the endzone seven times. He just got better in the 2019 season after a first half where he rushed for 644 yards. From Week 10 to Week 17 (Henry played five times in this span due to a late bye and injuries), Henry rushed for 896 yards, failing to cross 100 yards in a game just once. His late surge put him on top of the rushing yard leaderboard by season’s end, but in the postseason he just kept running like Forrest Gump in college. In the first two weekends of the playoffs, Henry rushed for over 150 yards in both games and was a big reason why the Titans won both games on the road.

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) breaks away from Houston Texans safety A.J. Moore Jr. (33) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Houston. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)

Henry is special and has gotten a lot of love from the fans for his incredible running skills and intensive stiff arms that make defenders look silly and slippery on the field. But I wanted to focus on something more than just Henry’s rare feat. He is doing this in a passer-heavy phase of the game that is smoothly transitioning into a scrambler’s era of football. King Henry, as called by fans across the nation, is a natural talent at running back and an exception to the new-aged definition of the running game. 

Most quarterbacks this season use one of two strategies: One is that they pass the ball a lot, thus breaking their franchise’s record for passing yards and passing touchdowns. These field generals, such as Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Phillip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, also tend to have a main wide receiver connection, whether that is Mike Evans or Davante Adams. This leads to more wide receivers than running backs getting into the thousand-yard club every single year. 

The other strategy is that the quarterback runs the ball a lot. Now these guys pass when they must, but they also possess incredible speed. These tend to be the younger quarterbacks, and include Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Cam Newton, Daniel Jones (two specific instances), Jalen Hurts, Kyler Murray and others. In these cases, the quarterback ends up as the leading rusher, making the position of running back seem unimportant or obsolete in this case. This applies to only some teams now but could soon apply to all the teams in the future.

Other quarterbacks just use both of these strategies, such as Russell Wilson, and their teams also typically have a wide receiver with a thousand-yard season such as DK Metcalf, an emerging and incredible option for Wilson in Seattle. Even now, some running backs are being used as receiving options almost as equally as they are used to run the ball. In his incredible 2019 season, Christian McCaffrey had 1,000+ yards on the ground and in the air. 

Henry is just different though, and why he ran for so many yards does not have to do with the quarterback situation in Nashville. The Titans have a solid option under center in Ryan Tannehill, but aside from Warren Moon, the Titans/Oilers are remembered more for their running backs. With Henry’s incredible performance, the Titans became the first team in NFL history to have two rushers with a 2,000-yard season, the other being Chris Johnson in 2009. Outside of those two, the Titans have also had Hall-of-Famer Earl Campbell and former Heisman winner Eddie George.

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) is tackled by Houston Texans cornerback Lonnie Johnson Jr. (32) during the second half of an NFL football game Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith)

In this passing era of football, the MVP typically goes to a quarterback, whether that is Patrick Mahomes (2018) or Peyton Manning (five times). Wide receivers barely get any recognition in the MVP category. Running backs, meanwhile, make rare appearances at the top, and this includes Peterson (2012), Shaun Alexander (2005) and Tomlinson (2006). If Henry does not win MVP in a very competitive field this season, he is not only going to win Offensive Player of the Year most likely, but also be in MVP conversations for at least the next five years. 

Defenses can only tremble in fear when hearing the last name Henry because there is the possibility that he will run over 200 yards and score two touchdowns, something he has done every time he has crossed that plateau. As the playoffs get into full gear, the Baltimore Ravens will have their hands full dealing with Henry for the third time in a one-year span. Now whether Henry stiff arms another defender is going to be up to him and what the Ravens plan around his offense, but until then, Henry will be the person to look out for in this week’s tilt.

I just have one question in mind regarding Henry’s remarkable performance. No one in NFL history has ever put up more than 2,000 yards in a season more than once, but does that change with Henry? Also, in this passer’s era, has Henry’s 2,000-yard season been the last one ever seen? My answer is no, but this accomplishment might not happen again for at least a half decade. What will happen to the running back position in the next decade or five years? Only time will tell, but until then fans have the talents of Henry to appreciate as he runs all over the gridiron, hoping to see a special performance to an already special career.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Hey Cole. You might want to check your facts about Derrick Henry. He did not accomplish everything this year on a Franchise Tag. They signed him to 4-year, $50 million deal in July before the season started. I noticed you said franchise tag in your most recent article.

    • Hello Sean, my bad, I knew he was on a franchise tag, but I did not realize that his four year deal started this season. That is on me and I know better for next time.

      He has truly lived up to it so far and I think he deserves a massive payday afterwards.

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