NASHVILLE, Tenn. ⏤ The biggest question currently surrounding Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry, who will have surgery on Tuesday to address a broken bone in his right foot, is whether he will heal quickly enough to return before the end of the 2021 season.
That question probably won’t be answered with certainty for a while.
“We are not going to put a timeline on when he may return,” Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said. “I know he will do everything that he can to work himself back and be able to help this football team. Whenever that is, that is when it will be.”
There is another question, though, that can and will be answered much sooner: can the Titans continue winning without him?
SUCCESS OWED TO HENRY
— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) November 1, 2021
Following an overtime win over the Colts on Sunday, the Titans’ fourth-straight win, the team sits atop the AFC South with a three-game lead over second-place Indianapolis. Tennessee also boasts the best record in the entire AFC.
Most of that success, at least the offensive contributions to it, can be attributed to Henry⏤both to his accomplishments in the running game and the attention he commands from defenses even when he doesn’t have the ball.
Vrabel practically said as much after the Titans’ Week Six win over Buffalo, in which Henry scored three touchdowns and ran for 143 yards.
“We continue to jump on Derrick’s back,” Vrabel said. “He’s willing and able to carry us. It’s something that you know that you have in your back pocket.”
But to believe that the Titans’ season is effectively over because of Henry’s injury would be to ignore the abilities of the team’s other offensive players.
That’s not to say that Henry’s impact on the Titans wasn’t massive. He played at an MVP level over the first half of the season, breaking and tying records held by the likes of Jim Brown and Barry Sanders.
However, the Titans also happen to have a pretty good quarterback and two talented wide receivers.
QB Ryan Tannehill, often incorrectly believed to merely be “the guy who hands off to Henry,” is no slouch. He’s 24-10 as the Titans’ starter, and he’s consistently been one of the NFL’s best downfield passers.
He did struggle against the Colts on Sunday, but that wasn’t a representative sample of how he’s played in 2021.
Just seven days prior, against the Kansas City Chiefs, Tannehill opened the game by throwing eleven straight completions, only a few of which were dink-and-dunk plays. He saw similar success in the second half against Buffalo six days before that.
“Anybody who’s sleeping on him, it’s nonsense,” WR A.J. Brown said of Tannehill during Training Camp.
“Derrick doesn’t get the ball every play. Somebody has to throw us the ball, and he’s very accurate.”
Brown, a Pro Bowler in 2020, will also give the Titans plenty of firepower during Henry’s absence. He’s playing some of the best football of his career, currently, racking up 25 catches, 379 yards and two touchdowns over the Titans’ last three games.
WR Julio Jones should bring provide some relief, as well. He hasn’t played a ton in 2021 because of a nagging hamstring injury, but he’s been his limited appearances have, mostly, been exceptional.
Tennessee’s offense certainly leans very heavily on Henry and the run game when he’s available, but they have enough juice in the passing game to score points without him.
NOT A FATAL BLOW
Here’s the deal: if Henry is back for the playoffs, which @RapSheet seems to think is reasonably possible (10-week injury would keep him out through Week 18), this is not a catastrophic blow.#Titans will still coast to a division win with Tannehill, AJB, and the pass rush.
— Luke Worsham (@luke_worsham) November 1, 2021
Additionally, Henry’s absence doesn’t mean the Titans have to stop running the ball entirely, nor that their running game will henceforth be ineffective.
The team’s offensive line is made up of several strong run-blockers, notably guards Rodger Saffold and Nate Davis.
Tennessee is also reportedly set to bring in RB Adrian Peterson, the NFL’s fifth all-time leading rusher. Peterson isn’t exactly spry at 36 years old, but he can handle a big workload and produce, especially between the tackles.
“We are going to continue to run the ball with whoever is in there,” Vrabel said. “We will run our offense. I don’t think anybody wants to sit there and drop back and throw it 45 times a game.”
Henry is an irreplaceable commodity, and it’s unclear whether the Titans will be able to consistently compete with the NFL’s best without him. His absence will, undeniably, result in the team losing a step or two.
What the Titans won’t do, though, is completely collapse. They aren’t going to take some kind of meteoric nosedive, especially when they still get to play Jacksonville at home and Houston twice.
Vrabel has implemented a strong “next-man-up” culture within the locker room, and Henry will continue to serve as a leader in the building while he rehabs.
Losing Henry is a big blow, but it won’t be a fatal one.
“It’s our job to continue to find ways to win,” Vrabel said. “Derrick’s gonna be missed, but I think everybody also understands that we’re gonna continue to prepare and find out who we have available, have a game plan, and try to win. That’s just what has to happen.”
- Henry image: Trevor Ruszkowski/USA Today
- Tannehill image: George Walker IV/The Tennessean