NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In 2003, running back Jamal Lewis piled up 387 carries during the regular season en route to 2,066 rushing yards and a Baltimore Ravens playoff berth.
“I can remember going into the playoff game that year,” Lewis said on ESPN Nashville’s 102.5 The Game. “I was out of gas and hoped that the passing game would pick up. I had over 380 carries and felt every single one of those going into that game.”
Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry has had a similar season in 2020. He carried the ball 378 times, averaging 5.4 yards per attempt and finishing with 2,027 yards to become only the eighth player in NFL history to surpass 2,000 rushing yards in a season.
Henry can expect the high volume of carries to continue as the Titans enter the postseason on Sunday against the Ravens (1:05 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC). The 6-foot-3, 247-pound back ran the ball 83 times in last year’s postseason, including a 30-carry, 195-yard performance in a 28-12 win over the Ravens in the divisional round.
The wear and tear that comes with 350 or more carries can take a toll on a running back — just ask former Chief Larry Johnson and former Falcon Jamal Anderson — and perhaps impact their postseason performance. But some running backs have been able to continue to perform in the playoffs.
Seattle Seahawks back Shaun Alexander ran the ball 370 times for 1,880 yards in 2005 and still picked up a combined 227 yards on 54 carries in the NFC Championship Game and Super Bowl loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Alexander said he believes Henry is capable of having the same continued success after being used so much during the regular season. But he cautions that it will take a lot of attention to keep his body fresh.
“Derrick’s body is like a gift from heaven,” Alexander said. “He has to take care of his body and make sure that it’s always restoring itself as fast as possible. With technology and science, you see the cold tubs, hot tubs, frost machines, infrared saunas — all of these things bring people’s bodies back faster. It has to be a part of your life. Health and science is getting wiser and they can recover faster.”
Having signed Henry to a four-year, $50 million contract before the season, there is no doubt that Tennessee would like to have him as their feature back in the coming seasons.
Former Titans running back Eddie George, Lions running back Adrian Peterson, Alexander and Lewis all had productive years following particularly high-volume seasons. George had five consecutive 300-plus-carry seasons, including a 403-carry effort in 2000. Lewis followed up his 387-carry season with a 1,006-yard rushing performance in 2004 even though he “felt like his body was shot.”
If anyone knows how to bounce back from so much usage, they do. Here is a look at why they feel Henry won’t suffer from so many carries and what advice they’d have for him going forward.
Why Henry will weather the heavy load
One of Henry’s strengths is his conditioning. Just one look at his social media accounts will show you how much work he puts in during the offseason. Henry won’t share many secrets about his workout regimen other than the fact that he keeps it the same.
“I just do what’s been working for me and continue to do those things to have my body ready each and every week to help the team. I always stick to my routine that works for me and has my body ready,” Henry said.
Titans coach Mike Vrabel: “It goes back to his overall approach, his conditioning level. I do think that there’s a certain level of durability that he’s exhibited since our time together that allows him to function late in the season.”
Running backs coach Tony Dews: “During the season he does a great job getting in the weight room with Frank [Piraino] and working his tail off in there. It looks like he eats pretty good, looking at his body. Never getting complacent. I think all of those things building during the offseason — and not just maintaining, but building during the season — have been beneficial for him. In my time with him here — history through college, even back to high school — he’s been a high-volume-carry guy. History tells us that he has been able to handle it.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill: “I think his consistency is amazing, his ability to take a bunch of hits and be unfazed by it. I know he gets sore but his mentality doesn’t change. You don’t see it in his face. He plays strong and keeps getting better the more carries he gets and deeper we get into games as he and the O-line wears on guys. That’s a part of what makes him special.”
Because of his size, Henry seems like a big back who takes a lot of hits. But that’s not entirely the case — in fact, Peterson feels it’s the opposite.
Peterson: “It goes back to the mindset. I’m sure if you ask Derrick how many carries he had, he wouldn’t even know. For me, having 300-plus carries, it wasn’t anything that I looked at. My body was feeling good. He’s one of those guys that doesn’t take a lot of punishment. He’s punishing other guys. There’s a big difference when you’re the guy initiating the contact and guys try to tackle you low. It helps your body if you’re in a position to carry the ball 200, 300 times.”
Advice from running back greats
Most of the advice from the players who have been through it before focused on taking care of the body and maximizing recovery time.
Peterson: “Continue to take care of the body. Do those little things like getting massages, stretching and make sure your body is pliable. The cold tubs, contrasting from hot to cold, things like that. Keep your body flexible. That’s going to be the key to having longevity.”
Lewis: “My advice would be as a running back you only get so many carries. So every carry has to be 100%. Work on getting smarter about the game instead of being a bruiser, being that plow.
“Nowadays, as far as therapy and sports medicine, it’s different. It’s more advanced now. Being able to do those things and rest your body, do the recovery things that you need to do. Even get lighter, losing a few pounds to come in where you’re not putting as much strain on your knees and your joints. Derrick, he’s a machine. When you’re running the ball like that, you have to take care of your body.”
But there’s also a mental aspect.
Alexander: “There was an immediate understanding that my body had to be in great shape all the time. It’s not meant to deal with the banging that 300-plus carries are going to give you. You have to go get it restored way faster than normal. Sleeping, massages, chiropractors — just mentally and emotionally being right all the time. …
“I give Derrick scriptures and tell him to pray, and I pray for him a lot. But I also think faith without work is nothing. When I watch most young running backs today and see them get hurt, they’re usually tired. So if they aren’t in shape, that adds to it. That’s what I am always giving him: Be spiritually healthy, physically healthy, mentally healthy and emotionally healthy. You gotta be intentional to do that.”
Former Titans RB Eddie George: “The best advice that I could give him is to take advantage of it. Don’t worry about the volume that you’re getting, how many carries and this and that. You’ll slow down when you’re supposed to slow down.
“I’m not one to do a pitch count on running backs because you’ll take them out of their flow. You often think there’s always next time, but there is no next. The only next that you are guaranteed is the now, so you have to take advantage of that. It’s only going to come to an end at some point, so you’ve gotta leave everything on the field.”