NASHVILLE – Tony Dews’ job is simple.
As Tennessee Titans running backs coach his primary responsibility is to help get the best out of Derrick Henry. Already, though, Henry is the NFL’s best at that position, having led the league in rushing each of the last two years capped the fifth-highest single-season rushing total (2,027 yards) in 2020. Henry also was the best player in college football when he won the 2015 Heisman Trophy. And he was the best high school running back in history, as evidenced by his national record of 12,124 career rushing yards at Yulee (Fla.) High School.
Then again, maybe Dews’ job is more difficult than it might seem.
“I know he’s a guy that is not complacent,” Dews said Tuesday. “So, I think he still looks for ways to get better. That’s also a challenge for me as a coach to continue to find ways to help him get better, in terms of fundamentals and techniques, and find the little things – tips – that I can give him from watching the opponent that can help him make decisions even faster.”
Dews is into his third decade of coaching but is still relatively new to his current role. He never worked in the NFL until 2018, when he joined the Titans as part of Mike Vrabel’s initial staff. Before that, he bounced around from a bunch of different colleges and numerous roles but only spent one year as a running backs coach, 2017 at West Virginia.
So, he does not have a vast personal history upon which he can rely to help keep things fresh. On the flip side, he is not necessarily bogged down in a traditional way of thinking either and, therefore, has the freedom to innovate.
Either way, it is difficult to argue with the results. Henry and Dews are in their fourth season working together, and the former is off to the best start of his career. Five weeks into the current season he leads the NFL with 142 carries, 640 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns. At his current pace, he will set single-season records for rushes and yards.
He has run for more than 100 yards in each of the last four contests and has three of the league’s top seven rushing performances so far. Henry also has two games with three rushing touchdowns. There are only six other running backs with more than three for the season.
“Really, you know, just focus on (improvement) and attack every week, wanting to be better and wanting to improve,” Henry said. “… How can we [as an offense] be better than the week before and be better connected? That should be the main focus always.”
That’s where Dews comes in.
The two not only spend time together in the meeting room and on the practice field with the rest of the running backs, they also get a lot of one-on-one time during workouts during periods when most of the rest of the team is focused on special teams. Recently, much of that time has been spent on Henry’s receiving skills, and through five games the running back is Tennessee’s second-leading receiver with 14 catches, five short of his career-high.
Plus, Henry had as many 100-yard games in the first four weeks of this season (three) as he had in the first four weeks of his first five seasons combined.
“With all players – like with anything in life – if you can show guys sometimes the benefit of their hard work or things that they’ve done to help them in a game situation then they tend to listen to you a little bit more,” Dews said. “That gives you a little more freedom and leeway to coach them, and they’ll take the coaching. And then you continue to show them things in how it relates to the game.”
He might not always know what he will do next to try to keep Henry moving in the right direction, but at least he can be certain that whatever he comes up with, Henry will be a willing pupil.
“He has a tremendous work ethic,” Dews said. “He’s a joy to be around. He’s fun to coach. He takes the coaching.
“… It’s like anything else, as a coach you have to stay prepared. I have to stay ahead of the game, so to speak, in being able to show him and give him things that are going to be beneficial to him as a football player.”
And that is not always easy when it comes to a guy who already is at the head of the class.