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Derrick Henry's Playoff Heroics Could Come Back to Haunt Him in 2020

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterAugust 25, 2020

Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry (22) runs past Baltimore Ravens strong safety Chuck Clark (36) during the second half of an NFL divisional playoff football game, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, in Baltimore. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Derrick Henry was trending on the social networks for a while this weekend, thanks to Earl Thomas III.

Thomas, as you know, was released by the Ravens on Sunday after an on-field altercation with a teammate. Henry went viral thanks to his double stiff-arm of Thomas at the end of a 27-yard run in the Titans' 28-12 playoff victory in January, the game that essentially ended Thomas' Ravens career while cementing the legacy of Playoff Henry.

Henry rushed for 195 yards (and added a trick-play passing touchdown) in the win. He had rushed for 182 the previous week to help the Titans upset Tom Brady and the Patriots in the Wild Card Round. Henry finished last year's playoffs with 446 rushing yards, the sixth-highest total in NFL history. Three of the four running backs above him (John Riggins, Marcus Allen, Terrell Davis, who tallied two higher totals) are in the Hall of Fame; Titans legend Eddie George is the fourth. More on them in a moment.

The stiff-arming, defender-trucking, jump-passing Playoff Henry nearly turned the Titans into a Cinderella story. But whether you are a Titans fan, finalizing your playoff predictions or just prepping for a fantasy draft, you may be wondering if he can sustain his 2019 late-season and postseason performance for 16 games in 2020.

Henry led the NFL in carries (303), rushing yards (1,540) and rushing touchdowns (tied, 16) last year. But through the first eight games of 2019, he rushed 151 times for 581 yards and just 3.8 yards per carry. He ranked ninth in the NFL in rushing after Week 8. He was on his way to a not-so-special season.

You probably remember what happened: Ryan Tannehill replaced Marcus Mariota as the Titans quarterback in Week 7, the offense began forcing opposing safeties to actually worry about downfield passes, and both Henry and the Titans went on a tear. Henry rushed for 599 yards and scored seven touchdowns during a four-game winning streak that pushed the Titans into playoff contention.

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What you may not remember is that Henry secured the rushing title and padded his 2019 stats by rushing 32 times for 211 yards and three touchdowns against a Texans team with nothing to play for and several starters on the bench for most of the game.

Henry's playoff performance erased any doubt that his late-season hot streak was purely the result of feasting on weak defenses and Texans backups. But Regular Henry and Playoff Henry combined for a whopping 386 carries. Running backs with high carry totals wear down quickly, especially battering rams such as Henry, who make their living by barreling through tackles and outmuscling Hall of Famers.

That's the problem with predicting Henry's future performance: Every positive indicator is a double-edged sword.

Ed Zurga/Associated Press

For example, Henry was the NFL's best running back by far last year when facing a stacked box. Per Sports Info Solutions, he led the league with 137 carries, 650 yards, 11 touchdowns and 18 broken tackles with eight or more opposing defenders in the box. Only two other backs (Sony Michel of the Patriots and Leonard Fournette of the Jaguars) faced a stacked box on more than 100 carries, and only Michel rushed for over 400 yards (401, to be precise).

Henry's ability to average 4.7 yards per rush on nearly 10 carries per game against defenses that crowded the line to stop him last season was certainly impressive. And Henry should face more manageable situations now that Tannehill is the full-time starter. But here's the "but": All those plunges into the teeth of defenses are precisely the sort of heavy usage that wear down featured backs.

Henry also finished second in the NFL with 3.2 yards after contact per attempt, per Pro Football Reference. He tied for third in the league with 29 broken tackles on running plays after leading the league with 34 in 2018. Again: Henry has proved he can generate yards without much help from his offense. And again: He's had to do an awful lot of that over the past two seasons and last year's playoffs. If Henry loses even a quarter-step of burst, a mile per hour off his top speed or a touch of the oomph upon contact, he'll become just another plodder plunging into an eight-man box for 3.8 yards per clip again.

The Titans signed Henry to a four-year, reported $50 million contract in July. They're gambling that he will succeed on his second contract, which is always a sucker's bet when it comes to running backs. It's hard to blame the Titans for thinking Henry will be different after what they saw in the playoffs. But Todd Gurley, Le'Veon Bell and other backs who faded fast after a few great years looked "different" in their share of big games, too.

Playoff Henry runs the risk of being like Playoff Nick Foles: an illusion generated by a few red-hot crunch-time performances. Foles, like Henry, has also had his share of regular-season success and even once helped drag his team (the 2018 Eagles) to the playoffs. But Henry, like Foles, has some limitations that will show up when things aren't going well for his team: You'll notice that we haven't mentioned Henry's meager receiving totals once so far in this column. And the only bigger mistake than overpaying for a workhorse is overpaying a journeyman quarterback because he's a "proven winner."

Michael Wyke/Associated Press

The best news about Henry's future comes from that list of all-time leading playoff rushers from the beginning of this article:

  • Davis followed his 581-yard, eight-touchdown performance for the 1997 Broncos with a 2,008 yard season, MVP award and second Super Bowl in 1998, though his career then all but ended at age 27 because of injuries.
  • Allen had two more great seasons after his 1983 playoff heroics, including a league-leading 1,759 yards in 1985, before things got weird.
  • Riggins became a household name at age 33 by rushing for 610 yards and four touchdowns in the playoff tournament and Super Bowl that followed the strike-shortened 1982 season. Riggins then gained over 1,200 yards and led the NFL in rushing touchdowns in both 1983 and 1984.

Davis, Allen, and Riggins proved it's possible for a running back to follow a historic playoff effort with a few more years of success.

And then there's Eddie George, who hammered out 449 yards and three touchdowns for the 1999 Titans, who came up one yard short of forcing overtime in the Super Bowl against the Rams. George led the league with 403 carries the next season but averaged just 3.7 yards per attempt; the Titans went 13-3 but lost to the Ravens in the divisional playoffs. He spent three more years as the Titans' featured back, cracking 1,000 yards twice, but his per-carry averages fell into the miserable 3.0-3.4 range.

George was the most rugged, hardest-working workhorse a team could ask for. He even once delivered a famous stiff-arm to a legendary defender in a playoff victory at the Ravens. But like many running backs, he lost a little something to high mileage during his late 20s. Yet the Titans kept hammering George into the line, hoping to recapture the magic of a charmed season.

That history could repeat itself for Henry and the Titans. For both of their sakes, let's hope it doesn't.

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