NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- As is often the case, Chris Hope was among the last Titans off the field after Thursday’s practice. He’d set up some cones and worked with some defensive backs after the session ended, but even as he left the field he wasn’t finished.
With hand gestures and footwork examples, he talked second-year safety Nick Schommer through a technique all the way to the walkway to the locker room.
That sort of devotion is what made Hope such a valuable addition to the Titans in 2006, when he was brought in from Pittsburgh as a free agent. It’s what helped him earn a Pro Bowl spot in 2008 -- one of three members of the secondary to earn the honor.
Working just as hard, maybe harder, he was also in the middle of the defensive backfield's brutal drop-off in 2009. The league’s ninth-best pass defense plummeted to 31st.
Hope was still a constant, but he didn’t qualify as the same steadying presence in a group that featured some injury replacements and was going against opponents who had more time to find targets downfield.
“I didn’t play consistently at a high level every game,” Hope said. “Not the big year that I expected from myself and not the big year coming off the Pro Bowl season. When you lose, a lot of things get pointed out. I’m a professional about it. Every year I try to find something to get better at.
“The numbers are considerably close, but the game isn’t about numbers, it’s about how effective you are every Sunday and wins. …I feel like I played well enough to win every Sunday, but I didn’t have those big spectacular plays and those consistent big hits that I was looking for coming into the season.”
Defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil looks back on Hope’s year and has come to a conclusion that he said he never has reached before as a coach.
Hope may have studied too much and gone into games overprepared.
“I don’t even know how to say this without it sounding wrong, but I think it was almost to the point of being counterproductive because he was so prepared,” Cecil said. “I think it became a situation where he was studying it so hard and so much, and putting in so much time that he was assuming when he saw something that he knew what the play was. Rather than just playing football and playing what happened, he was playing what was supposed to happen.”
“…As far as what you tell him? ‘Hey, don’t study so much. Play ball.’”
Hope didn’t completely agree with that assessment, and said he didn’t have any plans to change his preparation style.
But he did say he found himself watching things unfold last year and sometimes felt helpless.
“It’s sometimes frustrating, because you know what’s coming, you know what’s going to happen, you know you can make the play and you’re not in position to make the play,” he said.
“Sometime you may tweak your assignment or tweak your alignment a little bit. When you’re a playmaker, and you’re one of the leaders of the team you get a little frustrated. That was more of the problem than anything.”
Cecil is one of several people in the organization who credit Hope with changing the tone of the defensive back meeting room and setting standards for work ethic and preparation for young players like Cortland Finnegan, Michael Griffin and Vincent Fuller.
The next time the veterans are on the field for an OTA the rookies will be mixed in. They’ll include safeties Robert Johnson and Myron Rolle, a Rhodes Scholar the team may be viewing as Hope’s eventual replacement.
It can be an awkward stage of a guy’s career when he’s in position to help train his successor, but Hope will be a guy who handles it gracefully.
“If I’m here to teach those guys how to play and get to be a professional, I embrace that,” he said. “I feel like I owe it to the game. I didn’t get here on talent alone.”
Still, he believes he’s got three to five years left, and he’s determined not to fall into a trap he thinks hurt him in 2009.
With Finnegan and Griffin also coming off Pro Bowl years, Hope said he backed off, placing friendships ahead of football. It’s a mistake he pledges he won’t make again.
“We were experienced, we were all friends,” he said. “Sometimes the leader had to take the bad side, and I didn’t want to do that. I regret not doing it now. This year I will be more prominent and not really worry about friends and friendships as much as success and the growth of guys. I took a lot of pride in seeing Griff grow into one of the best safeties in the league and I feel like I kind of let him down.”
Hope will turn 30 on Sept. 29, a number that’s becoming a flashing warning light for teams no matter the position. He’s got two years left on the six year-deal he signed when he came to Tennessee after helping the Steelers win a Super Bowl.
“Father Time is undefeated, he gets everybody,” Cecil said. “I think Chris has been around long enough to understand that. His professionalism is almost unmatched. It’s not a discussion that you have. But it’s something that sooner or later everybody comes to understand.”
Hope said he knows Kobe Bryant can still do a lot of what LeBron James does, but that the Laker now picks his spots.
“[Bryant] chooses when it’s time to put the dagger in someone,” he said.
Titans coach Jeff Fisher mentioned the possibility of giving Hope days off during the season next year. Hope said he’ll pass on those. To glue a secondary together, to press guys to do the extra work, to train Rolle in the intricacies of the job, Hope needs to be on the practice field.
For Cecil to get him back to reacting to football as it unfolds rather than as it should unfold based on what he’s seen on film, Hope will want to be in uniform.