NASHVILLE – We all had it wrong.
We all thought it had to be one way or the other.
Derrick Henry has taught us otherwise.
When the Titans selected Henry with the last of their three second-round picks in the 2016 NFL Draft (recall that they took Kevin Dodd 12 picks ahead of him), it was viewed as a throwback to the days when Eddie George was the centerpiece of the offense.
And why not? Henry, at 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, was a physical specimen on the level of George, who was 6-3, 235. Both were Heisman Trophy winners for blue-blood college programs, Henry at Alabama and George at Ohio State. Neither was particularly proficient as a pass receiver, but then again both built their reputations between the tackles rather than in the open field.
Just ask anyone who played defense in the NFL in the late 1990s or early 2000s how much fun it was to try to tackle George repeatedly for four quarters. Now think about Josh Norman or Earl Thomas or others who hilariously have struggled to get Henry to the ground in recent months. Guys like George and Henry don’t come along all that often, yet in the span of a generation two of them made their way to a single franchise.
There is something satisfying about a professional sports team with a defining characteristic that survives through all the coaching changes and personnel shuffles that the sport mandates. Just look at the Pittsburgh Steelers and their pass rushers. Or the Dallas Cowboys and their offensive linemen. Or the Chicago Bears and their linebackers.
As the Titans approached the end of their second decade in Tennessee, an offense built around a big, bruising back felt comfortable and familiar and satisfying.
It also made the days when Chris Johnson ran past opposing defenders seemingly at will seem like a charming, odd little chapter in franchise history. Sure, it was a nice change of pace when it happened and it certainly was fun to watch that guy run but the line from George to Henry that connected the franchise to its early days of relocation – not to mention the appearance in Super Bowl XXXIV – was undeniable. Or so it seemed.
With his 212-yard, 22-carry performance Sunday against Houston, however, Henry proved unequivocally that he has just as much in common with the 5-foot-11, 198-pound Johnson, a product of East Carolina, as he did with George. His effort included a 94-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter during which he ran away from several smaller – and theoretically faster – members of the Texans’ secondary.
As of now, there have been five players in NFL history with multiple career touchdown runs of 90 yards or more. Henry and Johnson are two, which makes Tennessee the only franchise to have more than one player do it.
Likewise, there are just five players with five or more rushing touchdowns of 70 yards or more. Henry and Johnson are two, which – that’s right – makes Tennessee the only franchise to have more than one player do it.
In the last 25 years, there have been just two franchises that have had multiple backs lead the NFL in rushing. Dallas, with Emmitt Smith (1995), DeMarco Murray (2014) and Ezekiel Elliott (2016, 2018), is one. The Titans, with Johnson (2009) and Henry (2019), is the other.
At this point, it seems fair to point out that there have been seven different running backs – from seven different franchises – who have rushed for more than 2,000 yards in a season.
Henry currently is on pace for 1,881 rushing yards this season, but another performance or two like Sunday’s and it is not far-fetched to imagine that he could join that group, which includes Johnson (2,006 yards in 2009). That would make the Titans the only team ever to have two 2,000-yard guys.
Anyone want to say that it won’t happen? Sure, there was a time not too long ago when it seemed ludicrous for any franchise to even consider the possibility.
But these are the Tennessee Titans. This is the team known for its running backs. Big backs. Speedy backs. Or – in the case of Henry – a combination of both who makes it seem like anything is possible for this franchise and its running game.