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Derrick Henry stakes claim to RB1 role with record breaking performance

Derrick Henry just turned in the best performance by a running back in franchise playoff history.

Wild Card Round - Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jason Hanna/Getty Images

Before the start of the Titans first playoff game in 9 years, reporter Ian Rapoport started dropping news about the team on Twitter and NFL Network. First came the reports that Mike Mularkey’s job might not be safe with a loss to Kansas City. Then came this report about the future of the Titans running back position.

DeMarco Murray’s four year contract — signed before the 2016 season — was always more of a two year deal with a team option for seasons three and four. His deal has no guaranteed money left for the 2018 and 2019 seasons so they can walk away this offseason without any negative cap implications. This decision was always looming at the end of this year. However, this is the first time we have seen the idea of the Titans moving on from Murray in the form of anything besides pure speculation.

I’m not sure exactly when Derrick Henry became the Titans best running back, but I can tell you he started to show signs of it as early as the middle of the 2016 season. Here is my review of Henry’s rookie season from this past summer. There were several advanced stats that were already showing Henry to be an elite runner. He followed up a strong rookie year with a stronger second season, but still was relegated to backup duties for the most part behind the veteran Murray, much to the chagrin of Titans fans — myself included.

After Murray went down with a knee injury in Week 16 against the Rams, Henry finally got his first real shot at being RB1 in a must win game against Jacksonville. His performance was up and down at best. He scored the Titans’ only touchdown on a 66-yard screen pass that featured his incredible speed in the open field, but he was mostly bottled up on the ground thanks to an aggressive, run-blitzing Jags defense. His 1.8 yards per carry was enough for many to question his viability as a long term piece for this franchise.

During the week following Henry showed a great amount of self-awareness and honesty when he criticized his own performance against Jacksonville “soft” and vowed to run tougher.

We now know what an angry Derrick Henry looks like and its incredible. ”El Tractorcito” set a franchise record for yards from scrimmage in a playoff game with 191 yards. The previous record holder was Eddie George and his 176 yard performance against the Colts on January 16th, 2000. For a franchise that’s seen Earl Campbell, Eddie George, and Chris Johnson through their primes, breaking a record like this is special.

Henry did most of his damage on the ground with 23 carries for 156 yards and a touchdown for a sparkling 6.5 yards per carry. He added 2 catches for 35 yards through the air to round out his big day. Incredibly, 21 of his 23 carries went to the left side of the field as the Titans found something they liked and wore it out.

Taylor Lewan and Quinton Spain played their tails off today as Henry constantly had room on that left side and almost never had to deal with defenders in the backfield. That runway gave Henry a chance to do what best — run through arm tackles and stiff arm defenders. Henry was clearly more focused on following his blocks in this game and almost never tried to unnecessarily bounce a play outside. It was easily the best performance of his career.

Time will tell what kind of running back Derrick Henry will turn out to be, but his 35-yard touchdown run (complete with an homage to Chris Johnson’s favorite TD celebration) and his game clinching final run certainly felt like the coming of age of the next great back in this franchise’s decorated history of runners.