Joseph Dycus: Decline Probable For Derrick Henry

Friday, June 18, 2021 - by Joseph Dycus
The Tennessee Titans are (on paper) one of the most exciting teams in the NFL, which is a statement that would have been considered unbelievable even three years ago when the offense revolved around slamming DeMarco Murray into the line for 3.7 yards a pop whenever Marcus Mariota was throwing ducks to slow-footed targets. But after the Titans spent a second and fourth round pick to trade for the best wide receiver of his generation in Julio Jones, the Titans have perhaps the most fearsome quartet of weapons since the Falcons boasted Jones, Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez, and Michael Turner a decade ago.

Tennessee now has AJ Brown and Julio Jones flanking Ryan Tannehill, and the imposing Josh Reynolds lining up in the slot.
Of course, the offense’s main star is halfback Derrick Henry. He followed up his Pro Bowl 2019 season by winning his second rushing title in 2020 en-route to an All Pro year. Henry became the eighth member (and second Titan) of the 2000 yard club when he ran for a league-leading 2027 yards and 17 touchdowns. Even though defenses could more or less key in on Henry because of the Titan’s dearth of non-AJ Brown targets in the passing game, he still consistently churned out yards regardless of how stacked the box was.

So why am I hesitant about picking the Titans to go far in the playoffs? Well, it has to do with their superstar Henry, as unbelievable as it sounds. He looks like a 6’3, 245 pound superhuman who is capable for slamming into defenders for 100 yard games and touchdowns indefinitely. And for the last two years, that has been the case. But history shows us that the “cliff” for running backs is a precipitous one, and especially after a 2000 yard season. 

The last runner to go for 2K was Adrian Peterson (who is still somehow still a productive player in the league) in 2012, when he rushed for 2097 yards and 12 touchdowns on a team where he and Percy Harvin constituted 90 percent of the Vikings offense. It was a miracle campaign for the future hall of famer who was coming off a devastating ACL tear the year before. It was “All-Day” at his all-time best, a near-endless highlight reel of ankle-breaking cuts and monster trucks through stacked boxes. Those 348 carries took their toll though.

The next year, Peterson missed two games and ran for “only” 1266 yards and 10 touchdowns. It was a great effort and a pro bowl-caliber season for any other tailback in the NFL, but it was almost disappointing when compared to his MVP season from the year before. Three years prior, Henry’s predecessor Chris Johnson joined the club with a 2006 yard season in which he staked his claim to being the fastest man in NFL history. 

The man dubbed himself “CJ2K” and promised to run for 2500 yards, shattering the record of 2105 set in 1984. But instead of more 50 yard lightning bolts through the defense, Titans fans instead saw the toll 358 carries had on the 195 pound Chris Johnson, as CJ2K turned into CJ1.3K in the 2010 season. His averaged dipped from 5.6 yards a carry to 4.3 too. And before him, the last 2000 yard crusher had been Baltimore’s Jamal Lewis, who like Henry was a 250 pounder with the agility of a smaller man. 

He followed up his 2066 season with 1006 yards the next year, and like Peterson he missed several games because of injury. Even the great Eric Dickerson, who holds the single-season record for rushing yards in a season with 2105, missed two games due to injury and ran for only 1234 yards in his follow up 1985 campaign. Of course, Dickerson then followed that season up with a 404 carry, 1821 yard year in 1986. And like most of the other 2000 yard rushers, his efficiency statistics never reached the heights achieved in his most prolific year. 

So while Derrick Henry is a hall of fame talent and has earned his reputation as the league’s best rusher, Titans fans shouldn’t be surprised if Henry’s top-tier numbers take a dip in 2021. And if Henry has to miss time like several of the 2000 yard rushers before him, that missed time could be the difference between the playoffs and a high draft pick for a Titans team reliant on his tackle-breaking talent. 

Tannehill has been better than even the most delusional and optimistic Titans fan could have hoped for since wresting the job away from Marcus Mariota in 2019, but he hasn’t shown the ability to outright carry a team when the threat of play-action isn’t there (see the Green Bay game). So the team needs Henry to be in top-form to make a deep January run through the AFC. Even the best case scenario may see Henry’s numbers decreasing across the board. It may be in the Titan’s best interest to save Henry’s legs where they can, especially now that they have Julio Jones and AJ Brown on the outside. 

Instead of 370 carries, perhaps the Titans can cut that number down to a still-hefty 300 carries and a more-rested version of their star tailback in the playoffs. That might not please his fantasy football owners, but it could be the difference between a deep playoff run and a wild card exit for Nashville’s team. But even this may be too optimistic, since history shows that 2000 yard rushers almost always decline after their peak season. Derrick Henry has been incredible, but the NFL may have already seen the best from the superstar. The Titans have finally built a powerful passing attack to complement their crown jewel, but history shows King Henry will probably not get to enjoy it.

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You can contact the author at Joseph.A.Dycus@gmail.com or on twitter at @joseph_dycus

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