This week’s decision by NFL owners to add a 17th game to the regular season means that the discussion about Derrick Henry’s durability can begin anew.
The centerpiece of the Tennessee Titans offense not only has led the NFL in rushing yards each of the last two years, he also has led in rushes with 303 and 378, respectively. The latter figure ranks among the top 20 all-time and was the most by any NFL player in 19 seasons.
Not since the great Walter Payton (1976-79) has a player finished first in rushing attempts in three straight seasons, and the last before Henry to do it twice in a row was Ricky Williams in 2002 and 2003.
If he maintained last season’s pace throughout all 17 games of 2021, Henry would become the sixth player in NFL history to surpass 400 carries and – at 27 – the oldest to do so.
With all of that in mind, should coach Mike Vrabel and offensive coordinator Todd Downing consider ways to get Henry through an expanded schedule without allowing his carries to continue to add up? One former NFL head coach does not think so.
“I don’t know that limiting his workload is the right thing to do because as I watch Henry play, he’s a guy that gets stronger as the game goes on,” Jim Mora Jr. told All Titans. “If you don’t let him get in that rhythm then I’m not sure he’s going to be as effective.”
Not only does Henry typically get better as a game progresses – in 2020 he averaged 3.8 yards per carry in the first quarter, 6.6 yards per carry in the fourth – he also tends to get better as the season goes along. Of his 5,860 career rushing yards, 35.3 percent (2,069) of them, have come in 36 games in September and October. The other 64.7 percent – nearly two-thirds – have come in 42 contests from November through January.
Of his top 12 single-game rushing performances, 11 have come in Week 10 or later.
It is possible, therefore, that the 17th game will be more beneficial than detrimental to Henry because it will give him an opportunity to face a defense that already has been through 16 of them.
“This game is violent,” Mora said. “And that position is as violent as it gets. On every single play there’s 11 big, strong, physical men trying to tear you apart because you’ve got the football.
“… I think eventually it takes its toll, but Derrick Henry is built differently. People bounce off of him. I don’t see him absorbing a lot of hits. I see a lot of people absorbing a lot of contact from Henry.”
Over the past two seasons Henry has averaged 21.97 carries per contest (he missed one game in 2019). Add his 101 postseason attempts, and that the average rises to 22.38.
His 782 total carries between the 2019 and 2020 regular seasons and playoffs alone would rank as the seventh highest total in franchise history. He needs just 140 carries in 2021 to become the fourth Oiler/Titan ever to amass at least 6,000, not counting the postseason.
With his offseason workouts, Henry typically produces almost as many highlights as he does during games in the fall and gives the impression that he is prepared for however much work coaches want to give him – and however many games owners expect him to play.
“He’s got some really good years left in him, there’s no doubt about it,” Mora said. “He takes care of his body. He’s like Megatron. He’s just amazing.
“… Henry is special, and unless he suffers a bad injury, I don’t think he’s going to slow down anytime soon.”