Chris Hope and Michael Griffin are prone to separation anxiety — at least when it comes to each other. So they simply do their best to stay together.
Whether on the field or off, the Tennessee Titans’ starting safeties of the past four seasons never seem to be too far from one another.
“We’re almost neighbors,” Griffin said. “We have one house in between our houses. That just shows you how close we are.”
Hope signed as a free agent in 2006, and Griffin was drafted in the first round the following year. Neither missed a game over the past three seasons, although there was one contest in 2009 that Griffin did not start.
That makes them the franchise’s longest sustained pairing of safeties since Blaine Bishop and Marcus Robertson spent seven years together — minus one in which Robertson missed 14 games with an injury — in the 1990s and ending with the 2000 season.
Theirs has not been a perfect partnership, a truth to which Hope and Griffin readily admit. It has had its moments, though, chief among them the 2008 season, when both were selected to the Pro Bowl.
Now the end is near.
Each is in the final year of his contract. For Hope, that means the conclusion of his 10th NFL campaign and questions about his future as an NFL player. For Griffin, it is the completion of his rookie contract and — potentially — his first crack at free agency.
“So one day it all comes to an end,” Griffin noted.
Not that either is eager for that particular moment.
Hope effectively is the only professional partner Griffin has known. The 19th overall pick rarely has started an game with anyone other than Hope by his side at the back end of the defense.
Their understanding and sense of unity is such that Griffin actually felt a little lost when Hope recently missed practice time and the final preseason game with a minor arm injury.
“He said it didn’t feel the same,” Hope said. “It’s almost like, he said, he knew exactly what I’d say and when I would say it. He was listening for that squeaky voice of mine, but he never heard it. … That’s pretty special.”
For his part, Hope already has gone through it once. He didn’t like it then.
Originally a third-round choice of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2002, Hope became a starter in his third season. And for two years, he and Troy Polamalu started every game together.
“The minute I signed here, it was kind of like a death in the family for us to break up in the midst of a great run,” Hope said. “But then I get partnered up with Griff, and Griff reminds me a lot of a young Troy Polamalu — different games, but unbelievable talent.
“Myself and Griff, as good as me and Troy were, we never made the Pro Bowl at the same time.”
If the 2011 season is their final one together, it did not get off to the best possible start.
In addition to the fact that the Titans lost 16-14 at Jacksonville, Hope sustained a shoulder injury that looked as if it could keep him out for some time, which would be a rarity. He has missed just seven games over the course of his career.
Griffin failed to make a play on a third down pass late in the contest, allowing the Jaguars a first down and to run more time off the clock. That earned a public rebuke from his head coach.
“As a player … whichever one he chooses he has to be successful at,” Mike Munchak said. “So to me, you get the pick if you think you can get it, or you knock it loose and go that route. One or the other has to happen, and unfortunately neither did.”
Still, there exists the sense that they have done it before so they can do it again.
“I think there’s no doubt about it — they just have to be consistent,” Robertson, currently the Titans secondary coach, said. “You have to have that consistency. … If there’s too many peaks and valleys in your game, then nobody is going to know who you really are. If you go out week-in and week-out, then that’s what people respect.”
Despite recent struggles in overall pass defense — the Titans allowed more than 5,800 total yards each of the last two years — each entered this season with 15 interceptions, tied for 19th on the Titans/Oilers all-time list. In 2008, Griffin had seven, the most by any Tennessee player in the past decade. Hope had a career-high five in his first season with the team (2006). While he has averaged half of that number in his four seasons with Griffin, he did set a career-high with 133 tackles last season.
In Bishop and Robertson’s last season together, the Titans led the league in pass defense and overall defense. Not long after their partnership ended so did their careers. Robertson played two years in Seattle while Bishop spent one more season in Tennessee followed by one with Philadelphia.
Now it’s up to Hope and Griffin to see what they can do with their last chance.
“We’ve both had our ups and we’ve both had our downs,” Griffin said. “A lot of people have questioned a lot of different things about us and we’ve played some great football together, and we’ve played not-so-good football together.
“All we talk about is that we know what we’re capable of. … We know what we can do and we know what we have done. So there’s no reason … we can’t be better than we’ve been in the past.”