Is It Time for the Titans to Move Away from Their Identity?
I know, I know. Before you criticize my opinion, let me provide some minimal context as to why I pose this hypothetical.
Derrick Henry is the fifth running back on a list of an overall average contract value at the position with Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliot, and Christian McCaffery preceding him. Henry will be turning 29 during this upcoming season. Many notable RBs have declined during or after their age 29 season, including LaDainian Tomlinson, Shaun Alexander, Jamal Lewis, and Chris Johnson just to name a few.
The Titans have married themselves to the proposition that they are a run-first football team. They know this. The league knows this. Fans know this. The Titans are the tough football team that imposes their will on you and trusts their players to bring as much physicality as possible to the point of attack. Offensively, they know the opponent has the tip on what the Titans want to establish and the Titans dare you to stop it. The grit that this team manifests under the tutelage of Mike Vrabel is admirable and he has parlayed his eventful playing career into being a very astute coach; some would say among the best in the league. But as far as the predominantly run-heavy offense, have we ever really asked does this work?
On the back of Derrick Henry and his presence, Tennessee’s run game has been widely successful since his breakout in 2018, and the play-action pass has been fruitful when Tannehill is locked in. However, we’ve absolutely seen teams shut down the run in the postseason which, in turn, has detrimental effects on the rest of the offensive gameplan.
The blame doesn’t fall squarely on Henry’s shoulders as the quarterback play, offensive coordination, and the offensive line has factored into these situations, as well. Nonetheless, in games that the Titans have been eliminated from the playoffs, we have witnessed subpar rushing performances. The following statistics are courtesy of Pro Football Reference:
Sixty-nine yards on 19 carries against the Chiefs in the AFC championship game in 2019, 40 yards on 18 carries against the Ravens in a 2020 Wild Card matchup, and a modest 62 yards on 20 carries in the AFC Divisionals versus the Bengals after clinching the №1 seed in lieu of Henry’s regular-season injury that held him out for the second half of the season.
Some even argue that the Titans’ effectiveness in the run game in 2021 was just as prevalent with the “Running back-by-committee” approach. The Titans averaged 147.6 rushing yards per game in eight games with Henry last season and 135.8 rushing yards per game in the nine games without him (Ben Arthur, The Tennessean.com).
In essence, you really can not answer the question, “has it worked?” until you define what success is. The Titans have had Super Bowl aspirations for the past two seasons, in particular. This goal has yet to be accomplished while employing a run-heavy offense with this iteration of the Titans.
As we examine the last five Super Bowl Champions, (Eagles, Patriots, Chiefs, Buccaneers, and Rams) we see that none of those teams really had a stalwart, bell-cow running back, and employed solid defense behind well-balanced offensive attacks. Maybe you can point to Leonard Fournette as the lone deviation but, he has nowhere near the responsibility that Henry has.
Presently, most franchisees are more willing to acquire the next elite quarterback to pass teams to a title. No one is paying attention to the anomalies that Nick Foles and Joe Flacco were. Those are few and far between, for now.
As AJ Brown’s contract negotiations continue to cause a stir in Tennessee, we shouldn’t devalue how important it is to obtain a quality receiving corp in today’s NFL.
We’ve seen in three successive seasons how important it is to bolster your receiving corp. The Bengals charged to this past year’s Super Bowl with a wide receiver trio of Chase, Higgins, and Boyd even with bad pass protection for Joe Burrow. The eventual 2021 Champion Rams had weapons like Super Bowl MVP Cooper Kupp and midseason addition, Odell Beckham Jr., to help catapult them to success.
2020: Mike Evans, Antonio Brown, Chris Godwin, and Rob Gronkowski took the pressure off of Tom Brady en route to his seventh Super Bowl win.
2019: We saw the Chiefs finally arrive after the emergence of Mahomes and his offensive core which included Kelce and Hill who are all arguably the best in the sport at their respective positions.
Henry likely will return to form as he did have a low workload early on in his career, so age and wear and tear may not be as big of an issue. Also, Henry is just literally built-different (6 feet 4 inches, 250lbs) from some of the aforementioned RBs that have tailed off after age 29. Henry has all the traits to become the outlier, here.
But, if AJ Brown isn’t able to agree to terms with the Titans on re-signing, are they really ready to deploy an offensive attack that features Robert Woods, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine, and likely a rookie as your top 3 WRs? This would probably increase Henry’s workload and the dependency on Henry to be effective. This added pressure would come even as he ages and methodically works his way back from his first serious injury. And we haven’t even talked about how a WR room like this would affect Tannehill who looked average-at-best without his major playmakers on the field last season.
Is offensive coordinator, Todd Downing, really going to continue to run it back with the same scheme as Henry ages and rehabs from a foot injury in a style of offense that becomes more antiquated by the year? The Titans are definitely continuing to zig while mostly everyone else zags but we’ll see if this approach can finally get them over the hump in 2022.