Derrick Henry's return won't mean as much if Tennessee Titans can't beat Texans | Estes

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·4 min read
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  • Derrick Henry
    Derrick Henry
    LiveTodayTomorrowvs--|
  • Mike Vrabel
    Mike Vrabel
    Football head coach
  • Ryan Tannehill
    Ryan Tannehill
    American football player

My gosh, just look at all this excitement. Tell me, are you not excited?

Mike Vrabel?

“I'm excited,” said Vrabel on a Wednesday that'll forever be known in Nashville as Henry Day 2022, the long-awaited day in which running back Derrick Henry and his mended foot were cleared to start practicing again with the Tennessee Titans.

“No doubt it’s exciting to get him back out there,” said Ryan Tannehill. The quarterback was asked repeatedly about how great this was for the Titans.

Eventually, his excitement outgrew words, and Tannehill felt the need to start an impromptu yell practice, Texas A&M Aggies-style.

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OK, that last sentence, I made up.

Not to minimize the importance of Wednesday's news. It's a big deal. But I’ll remove tongue from cheek long enough to point out that Henry is still on injured reserve until the Titans conclude otherwise, and as such, the excitement outside the Titans on Wednesday was greater than on the inside.

Vrabel, in reality, couldn’t have sounded less enthused. He tolerated media questions about Henry’s return for about two minutes before grumbling, “Anything on the Texans?”

Had nothing to do with Henry. I suspect it's because Vrabel understands what’s important this week: If his Titans don’t beat the Houston Texans to lock up the AFC’s No. 1 seed and a first-round bye, no other advantage will matter as much – including the team’s best player returning.

It’d be one thing if seeding was still up in the air entering Week 18, but this has become beautifully simple. The only thing in the way of the Titans having home-field advantage for the playoffs is a 4-12 opponent.

Since the Kansas City Chiefs opened that door with a loss last week, the Titans simply must walk through it now.

No choice. They’ve got to win in Houston.

Whether that’ll involve Henry, I don’t know. If Vrabel does, he won’t want to say.

Meanwhile, the real excitement in how this has started to take shape for the Titans isn’t just that Henry is set to return. It’s that they might have the No. 1 seed in addition to a full assortment of their top offensive players together on the field – a rare luxury in this star-crossed season.

“It’s been a tough year as far as who’s been in, who’s been out, and we’ve overcome a lot of adversity and found ways to win games,” Tannehill said. “But we haven’t played a whole lot of games where we’ve had all of our firepower and been able to put it all together.”

Three games.

That’s how many the Titans have had Henry and receivers A.J. Brown and Julio Jones all playing more than 50% of the offensive snaps.

Two of those three games were in Weeks 1 and 2, when the offense was just getting warmed up. The Monday night win over Buffalo in Week 6 was the other.

Only the Bills, basically, experienced the full force of what this offense was supposed to look like entering this season. Since then, much of the Titans' offensive success has been improvised. They’ve made do with fill-ins and stopgaps. As remarkable as it has been at times, there have also been a lot of deserved pats on the back for a Titans defense that needed to improve – and did – in order to carry the burden.

You still look back and wonder how the limping Titans got to 11-5 and the top spot in the AFC.

But all that matters is they did, and now, they’re better for the experience.

As Titans get healthy at the perfect time, they look much better, deeper, more prepared for anything. So many of their role players – including guys who’d just been signed off the couch – proved dependable when asked to do more. That’s going to make them much better role players, and not just this season.

Ultimately in the playoffs, though, it’ll come down to the best players making plays that few others can make.

And that’s Henry. Two years ago, he nearly carried the Titans to a Super Bowl.

He has proven he can do that. Most other running backs cannot.

These past two months, we’ve grown accustomed to the Titans’ offense competing with at least one hand tied behind its back. To think of the potential of that offense at full strength for once. To think of it having a bye week. To think of Henry being rested and healthy and ready to punish tired defenses again in chilly January.

Yeah, that's pretty exciting.

"That's the King," Brown said. "If we get him back, everybody is gonna be excited."

Reach Gentry Estes at gestes@tennessean.com and on Twitter @Gentry_Estes.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Derrick Henry or not, Tennessee Titans must beat the Houston Texans

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