Chargers’ Hunter Henry doesn’t feel like season was a lost cause
This was the year Hunter Henry was supposed to emerge from the long shadow of Antonio Gates, when the Chargers tight end, fully recovered from knee surgery that sidelined him for nearly all of 2018, would establish himself as one of the league’s best players at his position.
But after a bittersweet Sunday in which the Chargers experienced the thrill of an exhilarating 45-10 victory at Jacksonville and the agony of being officially eliminated from playoff contention, the realities of an unforgiving sport had set in for the fourth-year pro.
“An NFL season,” Henry said, “rarely goes according to plan.”
Henry, 25, caught four passes for 60 yards in a season-opening 30-24 win over Indianapolis on Sept. 8, but he took a helmet to the left knee on a 17-yard catch in overtime that fractured the tibial plateau, sidelining him for a month.
Henry returned on Oct. 13 against Pittsburgh and caught 35 passes for 427 yards and three touchdowns over his next six games.
But with running back Austin Ekeler emerging as a primary weapon in the passing game and wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams among quarterback Philip Rivers’ favorite targets, Henry caught only four passes for 49 yards and one touchdown in the last two games.
His nine-game totals entering Sunday’s game against Minnesota: 43 catches for 536 yards and four scores — not bad, but short of expectations.
“That’s how the game goes sometimes,” Henry said. “You’re not going to explode each week, and with my role, I like to be a guy who’s able to block too. Some people don’t take that into account. I get excited to spring a big run or get those other guys open. It’s just how it flows sometimes. It’s not that big a deal to me.”
The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Henry, a second-round pick out of Arkansas in 2016, shared the tight end position for two years with Gates, the franchise’s leader in catches (955), receiving yards (11,841) and receiving touchdowns (116).
Thomas Davis served as the Chargers’ unofficial offensive coordinator — at least for one play — during the team’s blowout win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Henry caught 81 passes for 1,057 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2016 and 2017 and was poised to assume a bigger role when the Chargers declined to re-sign Gates in the spring of 2018.
Then Henry suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during organized team activities that May and the Chargers brought Gates, then 38, back for one more season.
Henry recovered from knee surgery in time to play 14 snaps in a 41-28 loss to New England in the second round of the playoffs in January. Gates was not re-signed during the offseason, and Henry entered 2019 as the starting tight end with Virgil Green and — since late September — Lance Kendricks in reserve.
“Not having Gates here, it definitely is a little different,” Henry said. “I’m the guy on third down, in crucial moments. I know I have to take on a little bigger role … that leadership role, and kind of be the guy. I try to be the guy for Phil too, to be an easy outlet for him.”
Chargers coach Anthony Lynn praised Henry this week, calling him “one of the better combo tight ends in the game, no doubt — pass protection, run-blocking and receiving.”
Breaking down what we learned from Chargers’ 45-10 victory over the Jaguars on Sunday.
Henry, who caught a 30-yard touchdown pass from Rivers in the second quarter of Sunday’s win, knows he has more potential to tap into in 2020. Even though he and the Chargers fell short in 2019, he doesn’t consider it a lost season.
“I’ve been through a ton of adversity, and this team has been through a ton of adversity,” Henry said. “I feel like I was able to bounce back quickly after the injury and play well. So individually, I feel good about my season.”
The Chargers’ marketing slogan after their 2017 move from San Diego will take on new meaning this week. The “Fight for L.A.” will be a fight for L.A., with the Chargers’ game against Minnesota having playoff implications for the Rams.
The Rams improved to 8-5 with their 28-12 win over Seattle on Sunday night, but they trail the Vikings (9-4) for the second NFC wild-card spot with three games left.
A Rams win at Dallas coupled with a Chargers win over Minnesota this week would pull the Rams even with the Vikings, so the Chargers would be doing their future roommates — the teams will share the $5-billion SoFi Stadium in Inglewood beginning in 2020 — a solid by beating the Vikings.
“Yeah, it’s weird in a sense,” Chargers rookie linebacker Drue Tranquill said of the Rams rooting for their Southern California rivals. “But we’re sharing the same city. We’ll go get the win for them, and we can share that.”
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