Remember When People Questioned Derrick Henry's Work Ethic?
NASHVILLE – It seems utterly laughable right now, but there was a time – not too long ago, in fact – when there were questions about whether Derrick Henry had what it took to become an elite NFL running back.
It wasn’t an issue of athleticism. It was his attitude – or at least his perceived attitude – that had people wondering.
It was April 2017, the start of the Tennessee Titans’ offseason conditioning program in the wake of Henry’s rookie season. Then-coach Mike Mularkey announced that the then-backup running back was a no-show (one of two) and had not checked in. Mularkey did not know where Henry was or what he was doing.
Columnists and analysts, locally and nationally, and even some of his teammates immediately weighed in.
Many assumed – incorrectly, it turned out – that Henry was disinterested in his role on the team and/or unconcerned with offseason preparation. Some even suggested it was an attempt to force a trade. At the time, he was second on the depth chart to veteran DeMarco Murray and had carried just 110 times for 490 yards in his rookie season.
Most quickly questioned his work ethic. Never mind that the offseason training program is optional, and Henry was under no actual obligation to be there.
Soon it was revealed that Henry was at the University of Alabama, working out with that school’s football training staff. He also was in class, working toward his degree. He ultimately collected his diploma in 2018 and fulfilled a promise he made to his grandmother.
The furor faded quickly as the truth quieted the critics, and Henry joined his team two weeks into the conditioning program. His play ever since, and particularly recently, has raised a whole new set of questions. His brief absence nearly three years ago might have caused people to wonder, “What is he doing?” Now everyone wants to know, “How does he do it?” And, “How long can he continue to do it?”
In the last three weeks – victories over Houston, New England and Baltimore – he has amassed 96 carries, nearly as many as his entire rookie season. All those attempts produced 588 yards, more than he had as a rookie, and helped make him the first player in NFL history with 180 rushing yards or more in three straight games.
Oh, and he has done it all in the wake of a nagging hamstring injury that prompted coaches to rest him in Week 16. That decision to sit him did not sit well with Henry.
“I was just talking to the guys about it and seeing the way he ran against New England last week,” Baltimore defensive tackle Michael Pierce said. “Just on TV, it didn’t look like they could do much to stop him. And probably for the first time in my career, I thought there wasn’t much I could do to stop him either. That dude is in a zone unlike anything I’ve ever played against.”
In 2000, when Eddie George set the franchise record of 403 carries in a season, he had consecutive games with 30-plus rushes once but did not so in three straight. In 2009, when Chris Johnson set the franchise record of 2,006 rushing yards, his best three-game stretch was 591 yards, but he had just one game the entire season with 30-plus carries. Earl Campbell, who like Henry was a rare combination of size and speed, had a three-game stretch in 1980 (his best season with 1,934 yards) where he piled up 583 yards and another where he carried at least 30 times in three in a row (97 attempts total).
Henry’s indefatigability and production combined with what has been at stake over the last three weeks likely makes his current stretch the best in Titans/Oilers history.
For him, it is similar to his final season at Alabama, when he had 46 carries in a victory over Auburn followed by 44 against Florida in the SEC Championship and then 56 more in two College Football Playoff contests. In four years at Yulee (Fla.) High School he averaged 29.1 rushes per game, including 35.5 his senior year.
“I have been doing this since high school,” Henry said. “This is me.”
At this point, everyone has seen enough to know not to question him or his ability to handle the load.
“He comes to me and says, ‘Give me the ball,’” current Titans coach Mike Vrabel said Monday. “… When he looks over and says, ‘I need a break,’ he gets a break, and then we go from there.
“… He’s durable. He trains. I mean, he’s one of the best-conditioned players on our team. When you watch him in April, May, and June, that’s how he trains and that’s how he’s built.”
And when you don’t see him, you can trust that he is somewhere working, preparing, doing what it takes.