Derrick Henry is an invaluable asset to the Tennessee Titans. He’s been the primary driving force behind the team’s impressive run to the AFC Championship.
His success is all the more impressive when you take a second to remember that Henry’s NFL career hasn’t always been blue skies and rainbows.
It was just last September when Henry evaluated his performance to start the 2018 season by saying, “It’s been trash play, and it’s unacceptable as far as me and my position.” January of 2018 saw Henry criticize himself for being “soft” in his first career start.
The Titans’ behemoth running back has come a long way over the last few seasons—trekking a journey of growth that required selflessness and plenty of looks in the mirror.
BEGINNING AS A BACKUP
It was on the heels of a trade for Pro Bowl RB DeMarco Murray that the Titans drafted Henry in the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft. The Alabama product took a backseat to Murray, who led the AFC in rushing during Henry’s rookie season.
Henry did get plenty of opportunities, despite Murray being firmly entrenched ahead of him on the depth chart. The Titans ran the ball a lot that year, so Henry saw 110 carries, and he racked up over 500 yards from scrimmage.
The future looked bright for Henry, especially since Murray was nearing the age of 30—often a death sentence for a running back’s career.
However, in 2017, it was Henry who declined.
Murray struggled with injuries throughout the season, which gave Henry a good amount of opportunities. He was not able to take advantage.
In nine games out of the eighteen the Titans played in the 2017 season, Henry’s yards-per-carry average was fewer than 3.25. In six of those games, his average was fewer than 2.5.
Henry made his first-career start in Week 17 and posted a major dud, carrying the ball 28 times in the game and posting a mere 51 rushing yards. That gave him a pitiful average of 1.82 yards per carry.
It was after that game that Henry made the aforementioned comment about being “soft.”
“I didn’t run like myself,” he added. “I wasn’t really happy.”
— Paul Kuharsky (@PaulKuharskyNFL) January 3, 2018
Henry rebounded the next week in the Titans’ playoff win over the Chiefs, showing glimpses of his abilities in an impressive performance.
Just one week later, though, against the Patriots, “soft” Henry was back. In that game, he carried the ball 12 times for just 28 yards, a 2.33 YPC average.
BLOWING HIS OPPORTUNITY
The following offseason, Murray retired, paving the way for Henry to be the Titans starter.
When the team signed veteran RB Dion Lewis to a pricey contract in free agency, it was clear that his role would be as a compliment, not as competition, to Henry.
In his new role as the Titans’ undisputed bell-cow, Henry continued to struggle.
Instead of plowing forward with the football, he often was too patient. If there wasn’t a clearly visible hole between the tackles, he would resort to bouncing the play outside, often leading to him being pushed out of bounds by a cornerback.
He looked almost as if he is trying to defend himself against being tackled, rather than trying to be the aggressor that he now has the reputation of being.
Henry surpassed 3.2 yards per carry just once in the Titans’ first seven games of the 2018 season. As he continued to struggle, he saw fewer opportunities.
Lewis’ role increased, and the Titans even resorted to getting career-reserve player David Fluellen involved.
Simply put: Henry’s third season was going about as poorly as could have been imagined.
“It’s been trash play, and it’s unacceptable as far as me and my position,” Henry told the Titans’ official website at the end of September.
“The position I play, I have to be more physical, and I have to make more explosive runs. I have to help this offense in a big way that I’ve always talked about that I want to do.”
GETTING IT FIXED
That’s when Henry had his famed-telephone conversation with legendary Titans running back and Heisman-winner Eddie George, who gave Henry some hard truths.
“He shot me straight,” Henry said, via ESPN. “It was what I needed to hear. He told me I needed to be more physical and finish runs, make the defense pay. He told me I could play better, and I wasn’t playing to my potential. It gave me a different outlook.”
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) September 12, 2019
Just a few weeks later, Henry posted one of the greatest single-game performances by a running back in NFL history. That’s far from hyperbole.
The once replacement-level back carried the ball 17 times for 238 yards and four touchdowns, including his now-iconic 99-yarder.
“I had a front-row seat to it, it was pretty awesome,” QB Marcus Mariota said after the game. “It’s hard to put it into words. I think he is more than deserving of it, he was kind of due for one of those. Some of those runs were pretty incredible.”
Since then, Henry has been one of the NFL’s premier backs. He’s become a living, breathing tour de force for the Titans offense.
“He’s able to, I would say, run multiple schemes, whether it be gap schemes, zone schemes, wide zone,” Vrabel said. “That’s something I feel like he’s improved at.”
“He’s learned to run behind his pads,” George said. “The game has slowed down for him.”
WHERE HENRY IS NOW
Henry once struggled to be more efficient than his backups. Now, he’s putting up ridiculous stat totals and, along with help from QB Ryan Tannehill, he has carried the Titans to the AFC Championship.
He’s run for over 180 yards in back-to-back playoff games, he ran for more yards against a Bill Belichick-coached Patriots team than anyone ever has in the postseason and his 1,273 rushing yards over his last eight games are the most in a stretch of that length in NFL history.
To get from where Henry was to where he is now, it took more than just a phone call on with George. It took character.
Luckily for the Titans, Henry has plenty of that. He is extraordinarily selfless, self-critical, and he always puts his teammates first.
If he shows excitement because of his individual success, it’s only because of the fact that it helps the team as a whole.
Those same attitudes applied during Henry’s struggles.
“I look at it as adversity. Everybody has adversity in their life, and I’ve had plenty of adversity within this sport. I just had to look at myself in the mirror and, you know, be a man about it and just overcome it.”
By any estimation, Henry did indeed handle his adversity like a man. As a result, he’s the man that no NFL defense wants to see as the postseason concludes.
Cover image: Evan Habeeb/USA Today