NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Michael Griffin's issues were none of our business.
That he had issues was an issue, and I respected him for coming out last year and saying that off-the-field stuff was getting in the way of his work and contributing to a terrible season.
Coming into this year, I suggested that his ability to rebound was going to be the Tennessee Titans’ biggest story on defense.
And through six games this season, we’ve seen the safety who went to the Pro Bowl in 2008, not the one who flailed in pass coverage, missed too many tackles and took terrible angles in 2009.
Griffin has learned to compartmentalize. And it sounds as if things at home have settled down, since he cites the exploits of his dog Roxie, a Boston terrier crossed with a French bulldog who cost $3,000, as his largest at-home distraction these days.
“Everybody has something going on, but right now everything is the best it could possibly be for me,” he said. “My little puppy keeps getting out of the gate. She’s going and getting stuff and bringing it back. She brought a ball back. She brought a little stuffed animal back. I don’t know where she goes and gets these things from.
“That wrought iron fence is not working. She puts her head through the fence, then push, push, push, push -- sometimes she’ll be upside-down. She’s 25 pounds. I don’t see how she gets her head through there. It’s impressive how she does it. Very impressive… You whistle and see her pop her little head up and come running back in.”
Griffin is a complicated guy, a moody guy.
Catch him when he’s ready to talk about Roxie wriggling through a fence and he’s great. Other times, not so much.
Those ups and downs have had a bearing on performance and production. But as he’s learned to compartmentalize, it seems he’s also learned to stay a bit more level -- or at least to make the moods serve him a little better instead of the other way around.
The Titans' other starting safety, workaholic veteran Chris Hope, is playing a lot better, too. He blamed himself for some of Griffin’s drop-off last season when the Titans’ secondary really struggled.
Hope said he thought Griffin had things figured out after that Pro Bowl year. Rather than stay on him as a teammate and leader of the secondary, Hope acted more like a friend. He wound up regretting it.
“He’s a different guy,” Hope said. “Sometimes he’s the happiest guy. He’s always the same with me, though. If you don’t know him, sometimes if you push him the wrong way, he’s ready to go at any moment. Then sometimes he can take a joke and just laugh about it with you. He has his mood swings at times.”
“The growth I’ve seen in him is he knows how to separate it. Maybe his first year or two he has a bad mood and it affects the way he plays. Now, he can get past that. If the joke is on him and everybody is laughing at him, he leaves that in the locker room and goes out and plays.”
In the down year, Griffin had one interception for a defense that ranked 28th in total defense and 31st in pass defense.
The 19th pick of the 2007 draft, the former University of Texas star can be a ball-hawking safety, covering vast amounts of territory. So far in his fourth year, Griffin has three interceptions and several highlight moments. He’s been featured here as the High Energy player of the week and as the central in a Decisive Moment.
Rookie cornerback Alterraun Verner said he learned quickly in training camp that he can rely on Griffin’s help.
“He’s got great range. He’ll be in the middle of the field and he can come all the way to the sideline to help out if it’s a deep ball or something like that,” Verner said. “And he always seems to find the ball. It gives you that comfort, just in case something might happen, that he’ll be there to save the day.”
Defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil was a missile of a safety in his playing days and is a Griffin admirer now. He loves Griffin’s athleticism.
“For him, playing well correlates a lot with happiness,” Cecil said. “His state of mind is a lot happier when he comes to work and he’s able to focus in on what we’re trying to get accomplished, and it’s reflected in the games.
“He comes in the building and he’s here to go to work …. In a lot of ways, our profession is really just a microcosm of the real world. The more you’re able to focus on the task at hand and not let out-of-work issues affect your job, the better. I think it applies to everybody. And when you have success at work, generally you have a lot happier home life.”
It wasn’t all about life outside of football last season, Griffin said.
He dealt with three separate injuries. (The team was unfair to let him absorb so much media criticism without fessing up about the shoulder.)
“I’m healthy now, that’s the biggest difference,” he said. “The shoulder was really two years, I tore it even more last year in the Arizona game [the 11th game of the 2009 season], I was playing with a turf toe after the first Colts game [Oct. 11, 2009], I had an ankle injury and I kept getting stingers.”
Following significant shoulder surgery in the offseason, he put on 10 pounds in an effort to gain sturdiness. He’s now listed at 6 feet and 203 pounds.
On non-football matters, a lot of people tried to advise him. But a lot of what they brought him rang hollow.
“A lot of people always feel like they have the answers,” he said. “And they don’t have them whatsoever. Because they’re dealing on what they would do. That’s like if I put you in a burning car. You say, ‘If I was in a burning car, I’d kick the window and get right on out.’
“Well OK, let me put you in a burning car right now and we’ll have your adrenaline working, your emotions working and you’re scared. Now what are you going to do? You forgot everything you said you were going to do.”
Time and a close friend who’s a bit older, Bennie Mitchell, have helped him better partition life and work.
Mitchell has seen two games of Griffin’s entire football career, so theirs is not a football friendship. They connected over their affection for dogs and have become so close that they talk every day.
Griffin trusts Mitchell. He knows Mitchell has dealt with a lot of similar situations in his life. They talk about what Griffin faces and how Mitchell worked out such situations, about what worked and what didn’t work.
A father to two young children, Griffin has come to regard Mitchell as his older brother.
The Titans are pleased at how Griffin has worked through things, and are thrilled at the production that has been one of the byproducts of it. He’s pleased too, and like Cecil said, a happy Griffin is a much better player than a conflicted Griffin is.
“This is a great place to be, a happy place,” Griffin said. “I have a lot of friends here …. It can’t be any more perfect right now. I’ve got a clear state of mind and I am focused on playing football.”
And tracking down Roxie with whatever she brings back to him.