Derrick Henry May Return, but Not His Shot at These Records

After falling just shy of Eric Dickerson’s record in 2020, Henry’s pace and an added regular season game gave him another shot. An injured foot will thwart his chase of that total and others.

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By Ben Shpigel

Graphics by Kevin Quealy

Though it’s possible a facsimile of Derrick Henry exists in Palau or Kyrgyzstan or in some astral plane, there has never been an N.F.L. running back as tall as Henry, as thick as Henry and as swift as Henry. That fact has been generally really good for the Tennessee Titans and really bad for everyone else.

Those who fall under the Everyone Else heading will get an indefinite reprieve from Henry’s weekly stampedes after he hurt his right foot Sunday in Tennessee’s 34-31 overtime victory at Indianapolis. He is scheduled to undergo surgery Tuesday and there isn’t yet a timetable for his return. Henry’s absence is a monstrous loss for the Titans (6-2), for his pursuit of a half-dozen rushing marks, and for those who enjoy watching big, strong, fast people do absurd things with a football. Which should be everyone who is not responsible for tackling him.

Henry led the league in rushing attempts, rushing yardage and rushing touchdowns in 2019. He led the league in those categories in 2020. Eight weeks into this season, he leads in all of them again.

Those statistics — 219 rushes, 937 yards, 10 touchdowns this season — once signified promise and potential, the possibility of Henry’s trampling records and defenders to post one of the best rushing seasons ever. Now the numbers, as if on a broken odometer, are stuck as is, unlikely to swell again in 2021.

Henry had been not only matching his 2020 performance — when he rushed for the fifth-most yards in a single season league history — but was outpacing every other back by such vast margins that it was reasonable to wonder whether they were all playing the same sport.

Guess what? They kind of weren’t.

In a league where high-volume running backs have faded as teams seek to take advantage of rules that benefit quarterbacks and passing offenses, the Titans have been, unabashedly, an anachronism. Their offensive identity has centered on handing the ball, over and over, to the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry.

Tennessee runs the ball more on first and second down (55 percent) than any team except Chicago and New Orleans, according to Sharp Football Stats — far more than the league average of 46 percent in those situations. In an effort to contain him, defenses sometimes deploy eight of their 11 players in the box, the compressed area generally occupied by defensive linemen and linebackers. Henry has faced those so-called stacked boxes at a greater rate (36.5) than everyone but Mark Ingram, Christian McCaffrey and Elijah Mitchell, according to N.F.L.’s Next Gen Stats and the extra attention deters neither Tennessee nor him.

After running 28 times Sunday against Indianapolis to bring his season total to 219, Henry has the most carries through the first eight games of the season, according to Pro Football Reference.

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