Of Derrick Henry it could be said that he talks softly, runs swiftly and carries a big stiff arm. Consider this: half of his 2,027 rushing yards last season came after contact, breaking an astounding 34 tackles in the process.
That’s why he’s the king. But the 2015 Heisman winner and second round draft pick’s (46th overall) ascension to the throne wasn’t as smooth as his deceptive ability to accelerate through the line of scrimmage and nimbly bounce to the outside.
Although Henry broke not only Alabama’s rushing record but Hershel Walker’s single-season SEC rushing record, racking up over 2,000 yards and beating out quarterback phenom Deshaun Watson for the Heisman in the process, as a 2016 NFL rookie he ran behind a declining DeMarco Murray because then head coach Mike Mularkey favored Murray’s pass catching capability. The following season Henry split the carries with Murray and was instrumental in the Titans 22-21 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in a wild card playoff game, where he rushed for 156 yards with one touchdown and 35 receiving yards.
Though Mularkey was fired and replaced by former New England Patriots all-pro linebacker and Houston Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel, 2018 began as more of the same for Henry. Vrabel hired Matt LaFleur, considered a burgeoning offensive mind wunderkind as his OC. Then the Titans picked up free agent RB Dion Lewis, an all purpose yards specialist who’s skill set fit the backfield passing schemes that LaFleur favored. Once again, Henry was more of an afterthought, utilized as a “big back” battering ram and little else.
That all changed in week 14 against divisional opponent the Jaguars on a 99 yard run, which began deep in the end zone and ended with Henry scoring a touchdown and becoming a star. Early in the second quarter, Henry broke through contact at the one, bounced out toward the left sideline where he was met at the 15 yard line by cornerback, A.J. Bouye. There he stiff armed Bouye, accelerating through him to midfield where he was perused by linebacker Leon Jacobs. Once again, Henry employed the stiff arm , this time bringing his pursuer to the ground, while tiptoeing along the sideline. If it had ended there, it would have been a great, yes, even memorable run, but it didn’t. With the astounding agility and precision of a tightrope walker, Henry managed to stay inbounds, outgaining multiple pursuers as he delivered a final stiff arm to linebacker Myles Jack before bounding, still upright, into end zone.
Unfortunately the 9-7 2018 Titans didn’t make the playoffs. Moreover, there were concerns that Marcus Mariota was digressing with a season passing record of 11 touchdowns, 8 interceptions leading an offense that was ranked near the bottom of the league. It was obvious the 2019 Titans would be more dependent on the run game. And with long time assistant coach Arthur Smith as the offensive coordinator, there was little question that Henry would start.
When Henry entered the NFL in 2016, the reign of the bell cow running back was in decline–then as it is now. The reason for this is multi-dimensional.
First off, the NFL is a fan dependent business, relying on televised viewership, merchandising and ticket sales. And the fans love offense in general–and a pass, pass, pass orientated offense in particular; at least that’s what the analysts tell us. In addition, the shelf life of a running back–elite or not–is exceedingly short, averaging a mere 2 years of prime production.
Accordingly quarterback pay has risen exponentially, while the running back’s pay has stymied. For instance, when Marcus Mariota signed his rookie four year contract with the Titans in 2015, it was worth 24.2 million. One year later, Henry signed his rookie four year deal worth 5.4 million.
On paper the combination of a fleet of foot Mariota/Henry backfield was intriguing, but Mariota’s baffling indecision eroded his already slipping confidence–he couldn’t read the pass rush and by the time he used his wheels it was too late. With no play action passing game, defenses stacked the line of scrimmage without fear of recrimination. Predictably the running game faltered. In a week 6 loss to the Denver Broncos, Henry ran for all of 28 yards. With the Titans staring down a 2-4 record, Mariota was benched in the 3rd quarter for Ryan Tannehill.
After eking out wins in three of the next four games–the last of which, Henry ran for 188 yards and two touchdowns against the Kansas City Chiefs–the offense began to gel with Tannehill at the helm. And with the weight of the offense more efficiently distributed, Henry went on a tear, rushing 622 yards in the final four games of the season, which cemented his win of 2019’s rushing title.
But Derrick Henry and the Tennessee Titans were just getting started. The team made the playoffs as the #6 seed and defeated the heavily favored New England Patriots 20-13 in an AFC wildcard game where Henry rushed for 188 yards.
Next the Titans faced the Baltimore Ravens–again heavily favored. Henry ripped the Ravens defense in a jaw dropping performance, rushing for 195 yards and throwing a 3 yard touchdown pass in a resounding 28-12 divisional playoff victory.
Though Kansas City bested the Titans in the AFC championship game, holding Henry to 63 yards, the running back’s stock had skyrocketed. On March 16 of 2020, the Titans put the franchise tag on Henry.
One day later Ryan Tannehill signed a 4 year extension contract worth 118 million dollars. Henry signed his franchise tag two weeks later and in July he signed a new 4 year contract for a total of 50 million, with a 12 million signing bonus and 25.5 million guaranteed. Tannehill’s contract provided a 62 million guarantee, twelve million dollars more than Henry’s total contract.
If the financial discrepancy between running back to quarterback matters to Derrick Henry, you can’t tell it by the way he runs…then again, maybe you can.
In the 2020 season Henry was named Offensive Player of the Year after being named Offensive Player of the Month once and Offensive Player of the Week twice. Along the way he racked up three 200 yard games, one of them against the Texans in week 17 where he rushed for an astonishing 250 yards and two touchdowns, putting him over the 2,000 yard mark for the season. He is the only player in football history to rush for 2,000 yards in high school, college and the NFL.
So far this season Henry is on track for more of the same. Entering week 6 he’s amassed 640 yards and 7 touchdowns. And in week two against the Seahawks, he had a monster game running for 182 yards, 55 receiving yards and 3 touchdowns, for which he was named Offensive Player of the Week.
But amidst the praise and the accolades, the talk has begun, louder than whispers, more like a drumbeat: how much longer can his body take the wear and tear? How many more yards does he have in him? How long will they ride him before he is injured?
Henry is a determined, yet humble warrior committed to the game, “as long as I am able to play.” His off season workouts are strictly regimented, going high intensity on Monday, rest and recuperation on Tuesday, low intensity on Wednesday, more rest and recuperation on Thursday and moderate intensity on Friday.
He runs with weights, doing his intricate foot work drills uphill…literally, he runs up hills. He does hundreds of curls with 40 lb dumbbells and hundreds of pushups. He hurls 35 lb medicine balls and pounds heavy weighted ropes. He does hundreds of squats. And then more squats.
He submits his body to a subzero temperature chamber, (cryotherapy) to multiple needles penetrating tension bands in his muscular structure, (dry needling) and IV nutrient therapy. He consumes a high protein, low carb 3,500 calorie a day diet (mashed potatoes allowed). He goes to bed early and gets up that way.
There are no whispers, rumors, no sordid details about his private life. He shares a stable, private home with long-term girlfriend and entrepreneur, Adrianna Rivas, their one-year-old daughter Valentina and dogs Nala and Nino. He rarely goes out, preferring to stay at home where he indulges in movies.
And he prays. A lot.
When Derrick Henry’s head hits the pillow he sleeps well. His life is both hard and privleged, simple and complex. It is a good life. A life that is fit for a king.