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Think Workload Worries Henry, Titans? Think Again

The two-time NFL rushing champion is well ahead of record pace for carries and touches.

NASHVILLE – As the offensive coordinator for a Tennessee Titans team that’s averaged a league-high 73 plays per contest, Todd Downing listens to plenty of game-day chatter from Mike Vrabel and the rest of the coaching staff.

One thing Downing has not heard during this first stretch of five games?

“I’ve yet to have somebody tell me on the headset, `Hey, [Derrick Henry] has too many carries,’” Downing said. “If the best way to help this team win is to give him the rock as many times as we can, that’s what we’ve got to do win.”

That Downing captured the Titans’ philosophy toward Henry’s touches so succinctly should be no surprise, given the astronomical figures the two-time NFL rushing champion has produced less than a third of the way through the season. A quick summary – along with year-long projections:

• Through five games, Henry has carried the ball 142 times, which is 51 percent more than the total for New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara (94 carries), who is in second place. Should he continue the pace, Henry will rush a mind-boggling 483 times over 17 games, obliterating the current record of 416 set by Kansas City’s Larry Johnson in 2006.

• In terms of overall touches, which include pass receptions, Henry is on another record-shattering pace. He’s had the ball 156 times, a pace that translates to 530 over 17 games. The NFL record is 492 touches set by Tampa Bay’s James Wilder in 1984.

But if you think that Vrabel, Downing or running backs coach Tony Dews are losing sleep at night trying to figure out ways to reduce Henry’s gameday workload, think again.

That’s not to say the Titans don’t concern themselves at all with the physical pounding the NFL’s premier power back has taken this year, not to mention the last two seasons when he carried a combined 681 times with another 101 carries in four playoff contests.

Henry practiced sparingly through the first few weeks of training camp, for instance, and he generally sits out either Wednesday or Thursday practices each week of the regular season – the Titans’ two heaviest days of work.

“We are just trying to do what is best for him, ultimately, and the football team,” Vrabel said. “I made decisions with Derrick and try do what is best for him ultimately to try to get him ready to get back and turn him around every week.”

Gamedays themselves, however, demand a different approach.

The basic idea is that Henry keeps hammering away and hammering away until he needs a breather, at which point he lets the coaches know. It doesn’t happen often, judging by the fact Henry has averaged over 28 carries per contest this season.

The King has run the ball at least 23 times in 10 of his last 12 regular-season contests, and the last time Henry went two straight games without at least 20 rushes was Week 8/Week 9 of the 2019 season.

“At times, you kind of understand how many carries he’s had or get a chance to see something statistically scroll across or what have you,” Downing said. “But never are we saying, `Hey, he’s getting too close to too many carries’ or what have you. We just stay in the flow of the game.”

Should the Titans’ coaching staff be more concerned about Henry’s gameday workloads? It’s easy to think so, based on the fact that Titans fans want a fresh, healthy Henry all season – and for years to come. To that end, former NFL agent Joel Corry, in a recent piece for CBSsports.com, noted the dip in production experienced by some backs following seasons of 400-plus carries.

But there are plenty of reasons to believe the Titans’ current approach with Henry is working just fine. Among them:

• Over the previous three seasons, Henry has run for more than 150 yards eight times during the regular season. Seven of those games came after the season’s midpoint – and four occurred in Week 13 or beyond. So, the idea that Henry might start to drag during the latter half of the season isn’t supported by his history. He seems to gain strength despite the workloads while defenses weaken.

• On a smaller scale, it generally takes time for Henry’s impact to be felt. A full 70 percent of Henry’s yards this season – 446 of his 640 -- has come during the third and fourth quarters. So, it’s clear that a high number of carries is required for him to gradually break the spine of opposing defenses.

“There is a fine line there in knowing what he needs and the impact he has throughout the course of the game,” Vrabel said. “Ultimately, I think he gets better, builds more confidence, sees where the cuts should be (as the game progresses). I saw some runs that were better in the fourth quarter than there were in the first quarter just by him seeing the same look, or the same defense, or block the same way and then making the right cut.”

• Henry is abnormal when it comes to his health, which is a tribute to his natural strength and incredible workout regimen. Despite the labor he’s endured over the past three-plus seasons, Henry has missed just one game during that entire stretch. And he probably could have played in that contest – Week 16 against New Orleans in 2019 – but it was meaningless to the Titans’ playoff chances. Another way of looking at it: How many times can anyone remember Henry limping off the field with any kind of injury? Take your time on that response.

• This is the NFL, and the Titans are in a window-to-win situation with their current personnel. So, who’s really thinking about how Henry might be impacted next season – or next week, really – during a particular must-win game? If the Titans are ahead by 20 points in a game, sure, go ahead and sit him. The same strategy should apply if they clinch their playoff seeding with weeks left in the regular season. But how often do either of those scenarios play out? If the game – or the season – is in doubt, why would you not squeeze all you can out of your best offensive option? Deal with the consequences afterward.

• Maybe the most important reason to stick with the current aproach: Henry is fine with it. He long ago reached the point where he could have started complaining about all the carries, asking out of more practices, milking injuries, or easing himself out of the lineup more frequently during games.

It just hasn’t happened. In fact, Henry seemingly gets more exhausted answering questions about his workload than by completing it.

“You all keep asking about this workload stuff, I just go out and play,” Henry said with a smile. “That is for you all to look at, I just go out there and play. I take care of my body and just be ready to play again.”

Henry excels self-preservation and restoration via the hot tub, the cold tub, massage, cryotherapy or active release techniques.

It seems there is only one barometer Henry concerns himself with when it comes to how his body feels.

“I just make sure that I feel good enough to be able to pick my daughter up in the morning when she gets up,” Henry said. “That is my main thing.”

So, if Henry ever reaches the point he can’t hoist his little girl, heaven help the Titans.

Until then, full speed ahead.