The Tennessee Titans have been on a tear in recent weeks. They have won four consecutive games, including back-to-back victories in weeks 6 and 7 against the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs. Sunday’s win gave them a comfortable three-game lead in the AFC South — but disaster has struck the Titans. The king has fallen.
On Tuesday, running back Derrick Henry will undergo surgery on a broken foot, and there is no timetable for his return. ESPN’s Adam Schefter is reporting that the injury is a Jones fracture, which could end Henry’s season. He’s also reporting that the Titans have signed veteran running back and 2,000 Yard Club cardholder Adrian Peterson.
Besides Henry being by far the best back in the NFL (his yards after contact alone would be leading the league in rushing, per PFF), he has been the fulcrum of the Titans’ offense since 2019, after sharing carries fairly equally during his first three seasons in the NFL. In the last two and a half seasons, he’s carried the ball 900 times for 4,504 yards and 43 touchdowns, all while averaging five yards per carry. Henry carried the ball 219 times for the Titans in 2021 and is still third on the team in receptions with 18. The player with the team’s second-most carries is Jeremy McNichols, with seven.
Fortunately for the Titans, they have a comfortable lead in their division and a schedule that lightens up considerably after next week’s road game against the Los Angeles Rams and the following week at home against the New Orleans Saints. This can allow Tennessee the time it needs to better balance their offense.
It’s hard to look at Henry and not think the best solution to winning is hand him the football until he needs water, and then hand it to him immediately when he gets back on the field. Credit the Titans for stretching this strategy out over three years, but it has to stop. He may look like a stone that guards hidden treasure, but he’s only a man. If the Titans want to maximize what’s left of his prime, they must apply whatever they do offensively for the rest of this season to their offense in the long term.
McNichols, the No. 2 running back, is second on the team in receptions with 21. Whenever Henry is healthy, he’ll have to be more of a tag-team partner than an understudy. If that requires using McNichols or whoever holds that second-string role in the future as solely a receiver out of the backfield, like the New England Patriots did with James White, then that’s what has to be done.
The Titans will have to get what they can out of wide receiver Julio Jones when he’s healthy this season, but they need some more youthful pass catchers next season to accompany No. 1 wide receiver A.J. Brown. They’re in a hole depth-wise after letting wide receiver Corey Davis and top tight end Jonnu Smith go following the 2020 season. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is going to need more targets he can trust, so the coaches can feel more comfortable with Henry not constantly acting as a sun around which the rest of the offense revolves.
Injuries are the unfortunate dirty truth of the NFL. It’s a contact sport loaded with contact and non-contact injuries. Relying on one player who’s not a quarterback the way that the Titans do Henry is not practical in sport where Vita Veas and Myles Garretts are running after ball carriers at a high speed. The Titans should make the playoffs, but most importantly, they need to use this time to become more comfortable with not relying on their king for everything.
Because a king can stay mighty but so long without a strong kingdom behind him.
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