Derrick Henry Is Creating A New Cult Around Running Backs

The first time I saw Derrick Henry play in person, he wasn’t a red and white figure racing across the screen. I had managed to fly myself down to Dallas to witness the glorious phenomenon that is the Cotton Bowl. It was December 31, 2015, and I was spending my New Year’s Eve watching Saban’s formidable Alabama squad, led by quarterback Jake Coker take, on Michigan State. I respected Saban immensely, in part because he resembled so closely Bill Belichik, the head coach of my NFL hometown team.

But the star of that game was Derrick Henry. Though he earned only 75 yards in 20 carries, he scored two touchdowns. Prior to the matchup against Michigan State, sports reporters were referring to the Tide’s running back as simply a “nightmare.” Just as anticipation swirled around Henry prior to his appearance in the Cotton Bowl, recent analysis preceding the NFL playoffs reveal that Henry has the same potential to “shake up” the upcoming playoffs, but in a more stylistic way.

As a Patriots fan, I can attest that the New England “dynasty” revolves around fabled quarterback Tom Brady and stone-faced Coach Belichik. But Henry represents the possibility of something different – a football myth that rests on the shoulders of a running back.

Sports reporter Bill Pennington of the New York Times pointed out how unusual the prominence of a running back is when it comes to playoff mythology. Pennington writes, “This month’s N.F.L. playoffs, someone forgot to tell the Tennessee Titans and their indomitable running back Derrick Henry that the game revolves around a pass-first mentality.” In other words, Henry is upending the usual dogma of quarterback-coach dynamics that dominate discussion of the NFL playoffs.

And Henry has far outdone his college self, bucking a trend of underperformance that perpetually plagues star college athletes who often end up falling short of expectations once they enter the NFL. Last weekend, the Titans crushed the Ravens, owing their victory largely to the running back prowess of Derrick Henry, who rushed for 195 yards. Henry performed similarly well against the Patriots, marking what many Patriots fans like myself felt to be the end of a dynasty.

At 250 pounds, 6-foot-4, Henry is exceptional. No one was shocked when he won the Heisman Trophy in 2015, as he broke the record for most yards rushed in a single season for any player in the Southeastern Conference. Henry’s acceptance speech was the first time I had ever witnessed Saban crack a smile.

As Pennington notes, Henry is the first player in the NFL to rush for over 180 yards in three consecutive games, and his presence in the playoffs promises to upend the traditional focus on the passing game. If Henry continues to be the centerpiece of the Titans’ offense, particularly in their game against the Kansas City Chiefs next week, he will offer something new to the playoff folklore and refreshingly so – a renewed focus on the running game at a time when the NFL’s perennial “cult of the leader” has been dominated by larger-than-life quarterbacks.