Opinion: As Derrick Henry powers playoff run, the Titans will have to pay up to keep him
BALTIMORE – And to think now, they once wanted to make Derrick Henry a linebacker.
Seasoned college coaches looked at this huge high-school player and simply couldn’t believe someone that big would be an effective running back at the next level. Reason prevailed, and the Titans are nearing a Super Bowl because of it.
As these NFL playoffs progress to conference title games with the Titans still playing, it’s becoming clear that what we’re witnessing out of Henry is something we’ve not seen before.
Henry’s 195 rushing yards in Saturday night’s 28-12 divisional-round upset of the Baltimore Ravens made three games in a row in which Henry has reached at least 180 yards.
No player since the NFL's 1970 merger had done that – ever.
That includes a lot of legendary running backs who’ll be remembered for feats less impressive than the postseason Henry is enjoying. The past two weeks, Henry has done this on the road in the playoffs against the Patriots and Ravens, two of the best defenses in the NFL this season, with his own quarterback throwing for fewer than 100 yards each time.
“It just continues to tell them what type of special player that he is, and that we need to bring him back,” Titans guard Rodger Saffold said of – and to – his franchise’s leadership. “We don't need to let that man go. I hope people know now.”
How could they not?
Henry is on the final year of his contract with the Titans, and his performance this season ensures that he’s about to make a lot of money somewhere. NFL teams are often reluctant to sign running backs to huge, long-term deals. It can be unwise to invest that much cap space in a position with a limited shelf life because of the punishment.
Some advice for the Titans: Don’t overthink this one. Henry is different. If ever there was a no-brainer, it would be to give the 26-year-old Henry whatever he wants and keep him in Nashville.
You do wonder, though, because why did it take the Titans so long to do what they’re doing? Henry has been on the team for four years, and other than a glimpse to end last season, the Titans for some reason have not leaned on him the way they are now.
He has 96 carries in his last three games. That’s a massive workload for an NFL running back.
Yet to suggest to Henry how unusual it is, that he might get tired, he looks back like you’re crazy.
“This is me,” he replies. “I have been doing that since high school.”
And college, too. During Henry’s 2015 Heisman Trophy-winning season at Alabama, he carried it 46 times for 271 yards against Auburn. A week later, he carried it 44 times for 189 yards in the SEC title game against Florida. In a win over LSU, he ran 38 times for 210. In the national title game against Clemson, he ran 36 for 158.
He played his best as the featured back in the Crimson Tide's biggest games, and he didn’t wear down. He got stronger as the games progressed.
We’re seeing that now with the Titans. It’s extraordinary in spite of a total lack of disguise. The defense knows it’s coming and can’t do anything about it.
That doesn’t happen in the NFL.
But it is happening.
The Titans’ rushing attack is in rarified air, excelling at a level few teams ever reach. No one can seemingly stop Henry and a physical offensive line that is in sync with him flawlessly.
“They did exactly what we thought they were going to do, which is the frustrating part,” said Ravens defensive end Chris Wormley.
“Seeing the way he ran against New England last week, just on TV, it didn't look like they could do much to stop him,” defensive tackle Michael Pierce added. “And probably for the first time in my career, I thought there wasn't much I could do to stop him either. The dude is in a zone unlike anything I've ever played against.”
Asked for one word to describe Henry, Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill settled on “special,” an appropriate word, befitting of a king.
King Henry actually walked out of M&T Bank Stadium wearing a crown atop his head Saturday night. It was a gift from a Titans fan in attendance. Even after all those carries and yards, Henry had enough energy to lap the stadium and greet celebrating fans in attendance.
What Henry continues to do, it's not normal. And while credit is obviously due to other areas of the team, Henry is the primary reason a middling team that barely made the playoffs is suddenly threatening to upend the league’s pecking order.
“I feel sorry for the rest of the people lining up against (him),” defensive tackle Jurrell Casey said.
“They've got to try to tackle Derrick,” cornerback Logan Ryan said. “No matter what they talk about all week, they'll have to try to do it.”
Reach Gentry Estes at [email protected] and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.
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