NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Conventional wisdom says avoid investing big money in running backs. But the Tennessee Titans are banking on Derrick Henry being the exception. That's why they applied the franchise tag to get Henry for the 2020 season.
Henry, who led the league with 1,540 rushing yards last season, is not only the catalyst of the offense, he also epitomizes the identity the Titans want to establish on and off the field.
"Derrick had a great year for us. He led the league in rushing. He built off the second half of the 2018 season that he had," Titans GM Jon Robinson said at the NFL combine last month. "He cares about his teammates. He works hard. He’s great in the community. We’re going to work through that one and do everything we can to try to keep him around."
Over the past two seasons, the Titans are 10-0 when Henry gains 100 yards or more. Henry rushed for at least 100 yards in the Titans' three postseason wins since 2017. The Titans are 0-2 in that span when Henry fails to reach 100 yards in the playoffs.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Henry accounted for 69% (406 of 585 yards) of the Titans' total offense in their two playoff wins this season before their loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game. The way Henry wears down defenses forces teams to commit to stopping the run by stacking eight in the box.
Henry showed his toughness with 723 of his rushing yards (47%) this season after first contact, which was the fourth most by any rusher over the past decade.
Offensive coordinator Arthur Smith found success by dialing up timely play-action passes when teams focused on stopping Henry. That sets up one-on-one matchups in the passing game.
Want to see how much play action helped the #Titans passing game? Look at how it impacts the safety (36) and LB (45). Also six men in protection. Marcus Mariota and A.J. Brown did the rest. (Animation via @NextGenStats) pic.twitter.com/MMm0PG9ZKr— TURRON DAVENPORT (@TDavenport_NFL) September 29, 2019
The Titans invested a four-year, $118 million contract in Ryan Tannehill as their quarterback. The best way to maximize Tannehill's skill set is to set up play-action passes for him. Tannehill is most deadly when he's working play-action with the run fake going to Henry. Tannehill's 76.5% completion rate and yards-per-attempt average of 13.6 on play-action passes last season were the highest among quarterbacks with 75-plus play-action pass attempts. Tannehill’s average per completion using play-action was an NFL-high 17.8 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Info.
While it's true that Tannehill is the highest-paid player on the team, Henry has morphed into the Titans' leader on offense.
"The thing that I'm probably most proud of Derrick is his leadership ability improved. I think he went from a good running back to a very good running back. But he became a leader," Titans coach Mike Vrabel said in January. "He helped carry my message and our staff's message into the locker room. I think his durability, his effort, his toughness allowed him to be a leader. I think that when he was excited and he talked to guys on the field or in the locker room, they listened."
Added tackle Jack Conklin during locker clean-out day, "Having played four years with him, [I've seen] him blossom into the rushing leader, and not only that, he has become a leader of this team. He has been extremely vocal on the offense and helps keep us steady. He keeps the guys going. That goes to show how much he has matured and what type of guy he is."
Henry showcased his toughness late in the season when he carried the Titans to a 42-21 win over the Oakland Raiders despite suffering a hamstring injury in the first half. Tennessee desperately needed to win to stay in the playoff hunt, and Henry's 18 carries for 103 yards and two touchdowns helped.
The Titans' game plan last year was pretty much the same in all of their wins: Wear down the defense, with Henry finding most of his success in the second half when the opposition's will was broken. Henry scored 14 of his 18 rushing touchdowns (including the postseason) in the second half. The 14 second-half touchdowns led the NFL. He was also first in the league in second-half carries (171) and rushing yards (991) during the regular season.
Henry's teammates marvel at how he gets more effective as games go on. The way Henry, at 6-foot-2, 247 pounds, is able to keep going as the carries pile up is an inspiration to the rest of the team.
"It feeds you a lot, man," linebacker Rashaan Evans said of being motivated by Henry. "Just the fact that you have a running back that is willing to be as physical as he is and able to respond when it's time to. That with our defense is like a one-two punch."