NASHVILLE — Derrick Henry of the Tennessee Titans was recently named the ESPN’s top running back headed into the 2022 season by a panel of current coaches, executives and players. It was unclear how Henry’s peers would view Tennessee’s star player after missing more than half of last year with a Jones fracture.
The league clearly still holds the Titans running back in high regard.
Henry does represent an interesting disconnect, however, between those who coach and work in football operations versus most people who cover the sport. Never in his six-year career has there been this much cause for doubting the former second-round draft pick. Aging at the running position can be difficult.
The NFL seems to think Henry can handle it.
Football views Henry differently than just data and metrics
Studying Tennessee in the advanced analytics community has always been fun to watch.
The Titans do not abide by DVOA forecasts. The offense has yet to conform to a commonplace pass-first philosophy. Yet Tennessee’s consistency is difficult to dispute. Under coach Mike Vrabel, the team is 66-44 including three postseason appearances in four years and an AFC Championship game.
Efficient? Not always, but the Titans have a proven track record of success.
As does Henry. Being named at the top of a preseason positional Top 10 list is not a Super Bowl, and that is the obvious objective for every NFL team. Those seeking data deep dives on Tennessee are often met with dismissal or frustration. Sure, the team that runs the most in the league on both 1st-and-10 and 2nd-and-7+ wins enough games, but how can they not see how much better they COULD be?
Henry is often at the crux of these arguments. Most of them fairly debated.
A throwback style in a physically evolved form is something that Nashville has learned not to take for granted. The preference, locally at least, has been to watch how long Henry can thrive rather than attempt to predict how soon he will fall off. In the absence of just chronicling the story of a player whose accomplishments already have a place in NFL history, the discussion turns to all the reasons why it cannot or will not sustain.
You can forecast collapse like Mike Tanier did in The Decline and Fall of Derrick Henry. The percentage chances of talent erosion at running back is higher than any other position in the sport. The argument is compelling, and critical to keep in mind for anyone invested in the Titans or coverage of them.
If he falls off, so be it
Football fans will mourn if the one called “The King” ceases to grace their Monday morning highlight reels in 2022.
Tennessee will get full measure of how much Henry has left in a season with all manner of uncertainty. If the offense further regresses or stalls after setting such high standards under former coordinator Arthur Smith, will it be the fault of an offense built around Henry or something more? Taking a full season to figure that out is what the Titans face in a year where the running back could use a rebound.
Nine games without Henry proved Vrabel’s staff capable of finding ways to piecemeal and effective running attack.
Replacements D’Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard’s successes in Tennessee’s king-less backfield earned both the previously unemployed running backs new contracts (Panthers, Titans). July is a difficult time to make sweeping indictments about if last year’s offensive struggles was an anomaly or closer to the truth. General manager Jon Robinson can save $12.5 million against the cap in 2023 if the bottom falls out on Henry, making the pressure more palpable than it has ever been.
King Henry sits a top the throne for at least one more season. The league and those who work in it think him not just capable, but the best among them. Eventually, Henry regressionists will be correct in their assessments. The wear and tear of pro football is unmatched.
Watching whatever remains of Henry through only that lens, however, seems a miserable way to view something that deserves fascination and amazement in real time.
Featured Image: USA TODAY Sports.