The Titans franchise has had a slew of legendary running backs. Can Derrick Henry run past history and carry Tennessee to the promised land?
The Titans had a magical run in 2019 making their first AFC championship appearance since 2003. Despite coming up short in that game to the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs there was no doubt the young team showed signs of a bright future.
On March 16th Derrick Henry was franchise tagged by the Titans after capturing the rushing crown last season with 1,540 yards and a league-leading 16 touchdowns on the ground. Henry was tagged after quarterback Ryan Tannehill came to an agreement after having his own breakout season which in turn allowed Tennessee to use the tag on Henry.
But even though Henry is staying with the Titans the current pandemic may put a delay on the upcoming NFL season and thus may hinder the contract negotiations to get that man paid. So since there are no current NFL or sports in general (other than transactions and the draft) I was going to take a look at the great Titans/Oilers running backs of old and why they didn’t win a Super Bowl and what Derrick Henry has in his favor to finally win the franchise’s first World Championship.
Earl Campbell (1978-1984)
Earl Campbell was the Heisman winning back from Texas who was drafted first overall by the Houston Oilers. Through a trade with Tampa Bay, they acquired the first pick and it produced the franchise’s first superstar in the Super Bowl-era.
Right out of the gate “The Tyler Rose” destroyed opposing defenses like Agamemnon destroyed Troy. In his rookie year Campbell not only won Offensive Rookie of the Year but Offensive Player of the Year and was the league’s leading rusher. From 1978-1980 Campbell would be in each season the OPOY, a Pro Bowler, a first-team All-Pro, the NFL’s rushing champion and would win the MVP award in 1979.
After five Pro Bowls with the Oilers, Campbell was traded midseason to New Orleans in 1984 after clashes with Houston’s front office and concerns amid declination. He would only play a season and a half for the Saints before calling it quits because he felt like the beatings he endured in his career were taking a toll.
In all, Campbell would finish his career with 9,407 yards and be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1991. His number 34 would be retired by the franchise in 1987 and he was one of the charter members of the Titans Hall of Fame in 1999.
So What Happened?
In short, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Earl had 40 100-yard games in his NFL career but only one came against the Steelers. In his first season in Houston the Oilers would lose 2 of 3 against Pittsburgh. Campbell would be held under 100 yards in all three games for a 3.8 average yardage per carry.
The Oilers would lose in ’79 and ’80 in the AFC championship game to the eventual Super Bowl champion Steelers. Campbell wasn’t the only piston not firing on championship weekend. Houston quarterback Dan Pastorini in both games would throw a combined six interceptions and would be sacked five times.
In reality though, the Steel Curtain defense of the Steelers didn’t let anybody really run at all during their dynasty. During Earl’s career with Houston from 1978-1984 Pittsburgh only allowed 11 100-yard rushing performances.
If Earl had a more efficient passing game then maybe, just maybe Houston could’ve gotten over those Yinzers and the “Luv Ya Blue” era could have been a dynasty. But Earl alone couldn’t carry the team.
Warren Moon Era (1984-1993)
Now I’m smashing all the running backs from this era together. This is because obviously the Run-and-Shoot offense dictated the tempo and taste of the team and a solid running game was just an added incentive.
Warren Moon arrived in Houston in 1984 and helped change the landscape of the NFL from the run-first smashmouth style of conservative play into a pass-happy fast-paced game that we still enjoy today.
With that the Oilers became one of the league’s top teams employing a horde of talented receivers combined with a solid defense. The only problem was instability at the running back position.
Houston spent three first round draft picks on running backs during this time. This produce five leading rushers during the Moon years.
Mike Rozier was chosen second overall in the 1984 supplemental draft and only churned out a single 1,000 yard season. The 1983 Heisman Trophy winner would gain 1,002 yards in 1988 and two Pro Bowl selections before being traded in 1990.
With the third overall selection in ’87, the Oilers took Miami U product, Alonzo Highsmith. He led the Oilers in rushing in 1989 but was traded away soon after as Head Coach Jack Pardee didn’t think he was a good fit in the Run-and-Shoot.
The Oilers would take Lorenzo White 22nd overall in 1988 and would be the main back for much of the Moon/Pardee era. White would earn a Pro Bowl selection in ’92 after rushing for a career-high 1,226 yards and would play with Houston until 1994.
Gary Brown would have a breakout 1993. The former eighth-round pick took over for an injured White and would rush for 1,002 yards in eight games in which the Oilers would rip off 11 straight wins en route to an AFC Central title. White would play two more injury-riddled years with Houston but would enjoy another 1,000-yard season in 1998 with the New York Giants.
So What Happened?
The Oilers implemented a high stakes/high reward style of play that left little room for a time-managing running game to choke out opponents. Plus the Houston defense would often be gassed from short recovery times.
Houston often fell in and out of love with running backs looking for the quick fix at the position.
Rozier and White only had 1,000-yard seasons mainly because Warren Moon went out with injury missing significant games in ’88 and ’92. Moon’s backup Cody Carlson just wasn’t the answer when it came to running the fast-paced offense so the load had to be balanced between the two.
Also in 1993 the magical run that ended in disappointment at the hands of a quarterback with a history of ending AFC Central teams was a shitshow entirely.
At eleven years old I was a huge Oilers fan and didn’t realize the scope of dysfunction this team possessed. The above episode of A Football Life presented all those problems and more giving me a glimpse into the demise of my childhood team and what led to it’s eventual relocation to Nashville.
Whether with Pardee or previous head coach Jerry Glanville the Oilers were only 3-7 in the playoffs from 1988-1993. Those included three straight losses in heartbreaking fashion: vs. Denver courtesy of some John Elway last-second magic, “The Comeback” in which the Oilers blew a 32 point lead against Buffalo and against Kansas City and Joe Montana erasing a late deficit.
Houston should have contended for every AFC championship from 1989 to 1993 but would end up becoming one of the biggest let downs of 90’s football.
Eddie George Era (1996-2003)
The first five seasons in Nashville produced four playoff appearances, two division titles, two AFC championship game appearances, and a Super Bowl appearance. Much of that was due to the brutal punishing running of George who amassed 64 touchdowns and over 10,000 yards in his career with Tennessee.
George was reliable starting all 128 games from 1996-2003 nabbing four Pro Bowl selections, an All-Pro selection and the 1996 Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
So What Happened?
Well, let’s start with the argument of why he shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame. The biggest thing about George was his inefficient rushing average. Over his eight-year career with the Titans he only gained 3.7 yards a career. On the all-time list of running average of backs with more than 750 rushing attempts, George doesn’t even crack the top 250.
So let’s compare him against one of his contemporaries in say Edgerrin James. “Edge” only had 30 games where he average less than 3.0 yards a carry. George had 48 games sub-3.0 and played in seven less games. Okay, George was a power back. A downhill runner that pushed around the competition. Let’s compare his to the ultimate power back, “The Bus” Jerome Bettis. Bettis made his living on goal line and short yardage situations producing 55 games under 3.0 but he played four more seasons than George.
The playoff competition Tennessee faced during this time was fierce. Losses included the Super Bowl defeat at the hands of the Rams’ “Greatest Show On Turf”, the legendary 2000 Ravens team and the dynastic New England Patriots.
Chris Johnson Era (2008-2013)
For six seasons Chris Johnson was the featured back for the Titans rushing attack for over 1,000 yards for six seasons. “CJ2K” earned his nickname after rushing for 2,006 yards in 2009 earning Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors.
Johnson never reached those heights but managed to become a three time Pro Bowler.
His 2009 season set the mark for most rushing yards in a season in franchise history among other NFL records:
- Only player in NFL history with a touchdown of 50 yards, 60 yards, and 90 yards in one game. (a 57-yard rush, a 69-yard reception, and a 91-yard rush during Week 2 against the Texans, 2009)
- Most total scrimmage yards in one single season: 2,509 (2009)
- Most total scrimmage yards in one month: 968 (November 2009)
- Only player in NFL history with 6 touchdown runs of over 80 yards (80, 83, 85, 89, 91, 94). No other player has more than four.
- Only player in NFL history with 4 touchdown runs of over 85 yards (85, 89, 91, 94).
- Only player in NFL history to run for three 80-yard touchdown runs in a single season on more than one occasion (2009, 2012).
- First player in NFL history with 6 consecutive games of 125+ rushing yards and a 5.0+ yards per carry average. (Breaking Jim Brown‘s record set in 1958 of five consecutive games).
- Second most consecutive games rushing for more than 100 yards (12, 10/18/09 – 9/12/10, first is Barry Sanders with 14).
- One of two players to have 2,000 rushing yards in a season but under 10,000 in a career. (other is Terrell Davis)
*list courtesy of Wikipedia
So What Happened?
First off was the instability at quarterback. It all started back in 2006 when the Titans traded Steve McNair to Baltimore. The team drafted Vince Young in that year’s draft with the number three pick as the future of the team. But if they had kept McNair to help groom the young quarterback things may have been different. People may not remember Chris Chandler was started in favor of Steve McNair after McNair (just like Vince; a dual-threat raw talent) was drafted third overall (just like Vince) because Jeff Fisher knew he needed some polishing.
Young had some exciting moments but clashes with coaching staff led to his benching off and on and off again. Ultimately instability followed and “CJ2K” played under Vince, Kerry Collins, Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Rusty “G.O.A.T.” Smith.
Also was the fact that Chris Palmer’s hire in 2011 as offensive coordinator clashed with Johnson’s style of play. Palmer tried to install a Run-and-Shoot offense that downplayed his style of running and his production suffered.
Johnson would only see the postseason once in 2008 marking him as the most unsuccessful back on this list in terms of postseason play.
Derrick Henry Era (2016-Present)
Alright, finally the reason for this article.
After being an absolute second-round steal in 2016 Henry found himself playing behind free-agent acquisition DeMarco Murray. Murray retired at the end of the 2017 season. Tennessee and would then have Henry splitting time with Dion Lewis and scrambling quarterback Marcus Mariota in 2018. A stagnant mid-2018 in which he averaged 37 yards a game would lead into Henry going on a rampage.
Against Jacksonville in week 13 he entered the Thursday Night nationally televised game only rushing above 50 yards three times. Boy did he go on a tear. Henry not only rushed for a franchise record 238 yards in the win against the Jags but he had one of the most memorable runs in NFL history.
From there Henry would notch three more productive games to get him to 1,059 yards for the season.
2019 was the breakout year. Despite missing two games Henry would win the rushing title and carry the Titans to a playoff birth. Henry run roughshot over defending champion New England and number one seed Baltimore for 182 and 195 yards, respectively.
So What Will Happen?
Realistically Henry’s got four or five more years of prime running left. It’s a sad affair watching your favorite backs disintegrate right before your eyes. But unlike kickers who play for 72 seasons, it’s the business. One day Henry will decline (or maybe he’ll be like Frank Gore and play consistently for 412 seasons). Until then Tennessee you gotta strike while the goddamn iron is hot.
Tennessee is making some moves to get free-agent Jadeveon Clowney to fill in some of those defensive needs. The re-signing of Ryan Tannehill was the right call over signing a 58-year old Tom Brady just because of pedigree. This team has never been aggressive as a whole. They’ve had some aggressive players. Earl Campbell, Albert Haynesworth, Taylor Lewan, etc. but for Tennessee to be successful they’ve got to be bloodthirsty. It works for them. Now I’m not expecting fans to throw people from the stands (Raiders, I saw that). Or Rock Bottom Bills fans into tables but I’d like to see the team to be actual Titans that fought the new gods of the Greek Pantheon.
I’m getting off track. Check it out. Henry has all the tools of a great back. The power of Earl, the breakaway speed of CJ2K, the ability to wear down defenses like Eddie George and the football smarts to read holes and situations. If the Titans can continue to fuel the talents of their players they can repeat the magic of 2019. I won’t go into the quarterback situation of Tennessee because I already did in my quarterback article. As long as Tannehill can throw minimally but aggressively, Henry can get the carries and the defensive can (please) improve I think the Titans can be a World Title contender.
*Earl Campbell never scored a touchdown via reception
*Here are all the 100-yard rushers against Pittsburgh from 1978-1984 I mentioned:
1978– John Cappelletti-106
1979– Earl Campbell-109
1980– Joe Cribbs-110
1981– Kenny King-102
1982– Joe Cribbs-143
1983– Boyce Green-137
1984– Ernest Byner-103
*Derrick Henry was two weeks old when Houston blew it in that playoff loss to Kansas City.
*In 15 games Eddie George only had a single 100-yard game against Pittsburgh (153 yards in 1998).
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