Ryan Tannehill hands off to Derrick Henry in the Titans' loss to the Bills.

We may be witnessing the end of the Tennessee Titans as we know them. It’s one thing to be 0-2. It’s another thing to not resemble the team we’ve grown accustomed to seeing under Mike Vrabel’s supervision.

Derrick Henry looks mortal. The defense has regressed. And Ryan Tannehill isn’t good enough to bail his teammates out.

No need to hit the panic button yet. The Titans reside in a division where every team has a loss. The AFC South is like a bad neighborhood in a depressed market. A 9-8 record might be good enough to win it.

How did it all go so wrong, so quickly? Last season, Tennessee was the conference’s top seed with convincing victories over Buffalo and Kansas City. Three years ago, the Titans reached the AFC Championship game. The franchise entered this year 41-25 since Vrabel took over in 2019.

The Henry-Tannehill-Vrabel version of the Titans might not be officially over yet. But you can see the end from here. It’s possible that all three will not return in 2023.

Vrabel built this team around an identity. In the golden age of passing offense and the declining era of running back value, the Titans zigged while everyone else zagged. The plan was almost a blueprint from the 1980s: lean on the running game, have the game-manager quarterback make a few downfield throws, and play tough, opportunistic defense. 

Quaint and effective. However, if the foundation of their entire philosophy shows cracks, who are the Titans? The entire system is built around Henry being exceptional. We haven’t seen Henry be exceptional in almost a year.

Henry has 34 carries for 107 yards and a touchdown this season. He hasn’t had a 100-yard game since Oct. 18 when he rushed 20 times for 143 yards and three touchdowns in the 34-31 victory over the Bills in Nashville. Henry was on pace for a second consecutive 2,000-yard season until breaking a bone in his foot. He missed the second half of the regular season but returned for the playoffs.

In the 19-16 upset loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, Henry had 20 carries for 62 yards and a score. It’s fair to wonder if Henry, 28, has finally reached his expiration date. At 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, he has been a physical marvel to last as long as he has with such a hefty workload. 

Over his past two full seasons, Henry ran the ball 681 times. He’s as tough as it gets but being a running back hurts. It’s one of the few positions where all 11 defenders have an opportunity to tackle you. Those hits take a toil which is why most running backs have short careers.

NFL Network’s Marc Ross made this blunt assessment of Henry.

“I don’t think they can play bully ball with Derrick Henry anymore because I don’t think he’s the same Derrick Henry,” Ross said on the network. “Coming off the injury, he just doesn’t seem the same to me. .. He doesn’t look as forceful, powerful, or explosive as he did last year. We know when Tennessee’s offense was rolling, when they were winning games, it was Derrick Henry playing like the best player in football.”

Last year, even with Henry missing nine games, the Titans were fifth in rushing (141.3 yards per game). This year, they’re 24th (86.5). Without that run support, all the pressure has fallen on Tannehill. That’s asking way too much of a guy who lost his best wide receiver in the off-season when Tennessee traded A.J. Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles in a salary move.

It’s a credit to Vrabel and former offensive coordinator Arthur Smith that they got the best years of Tannehill. But he has never been a guy who could carry a team. He’s a guy who works best within a system. And that system is severely compromised.

There’s still time to salvage the season. The Titans, helped by their weak division, play the sixth-easiest schedule remaining. As long as they can stay in postseason contention, Tannehill will start. Once eliminated, they might turn to rookie Malik Willis, who saw mop-up duty in the 41-7 mauling at Buffalo.

The immediate future seems bleak. Tennessee may cut Tannehill. Henry has only one more year left on his contract. Not too long ago, the Titans were a victory away from the Super Bowl. Now that window appears closed.

Life in the NFL comes at you fast.

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant, Anthony Grant, Amy Grant or Hugh Grant.