NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Michael Griffin puzzles me.
The Titans safety is a supremely gifted athlete who’s been remarkable for the team at times during the four seasons since he was the 19th overall pick in the 2007 draft. He’s also gone through stretches in which he’s been far less than remarkable, winding up on another kind of highlight reel -- chasing players who’d made big gains against Tennessee.
With a new staff awaiting the team when the labor impasse ends, and Griffin participating in a two-day player minicamp this week, I sat with him and also talked to his new defensive coordinator, Jerry Gray, seeking clarity.
The drop-off from 2008 Pro Bowler to 2009 disappointment, we already knew, had a good deal to do with some off-the-field issues and a torn labrum.
Wary of making excuses or tossing anyone under a big yellow transportation vehicle that carries children, Griffin still offered a lot of hints about what went wrong in 2010.
He was great as the Titans jumped out to a 5-2 start. But he struggled the rest of the way -- like just about everyone else on the roster -- as the team lost eight of its final nine games to finish 6-10. Football Outsiders charted him as missing 17 tackles, the most in the league and 12 more than he missed in that bad 2009 campaign.
(His Pro Bowl selection and standing as a Second Team All-Pro were testament to the impression his early-season success made on voters, and also spoke to the state of safeties in the AFC and the league as a whole.)
“There was just too much finger-pointing instead of us all saying, 'Let’s sit down and let’s resolve it',” Griffin said. “There was just too much going on and we were divided ...
“There was a lot going on behind the scenes. It was kind of good that there was a change. I think it was a change for the best. With a lot of the things that made headlines, you could just see where this team was. We were all on different pages, and it started from the coaches on down.”
Although Gray says Griffin has the skill set to play strong safety, given his skills and other available personnel, Griffin has clearly been best as a free safety for the Titans. He collected an interception in four consecutive games at one point last season, earning AFC Defensive Player of the Month honors for October.
Yet as the season moved along, he found himself playing a good deal of strong safety. He was asked to play nearer the line of scrimmage and make tackles on running backs and tight ends instead of roaming center field, reading quarterbacks and pouncing on pass-catchers.
“I feel like I’m better in the field. I’ve always been a free safety, playing in the field and trying to get jumps on quarterbacks,” he said. “Two years ago, all my interceptions came when I was in the field playing Cover 2 or playing Cover 1. Last year all my interceptions came playing the field. Then, all of a sudden I kind of got moved to the box.
“If I know this guy right here can get to the quarterback on passing downs, get him in the game and get him to the quarterback. If I know this guy is a great run-stopper, play this guy on run downs. I am not telling coaches how to do their job, but those are my examples. Compared to how we played two years ago when we were one of the top secondaries and doing a great job and had three Pro Bowlers, we were just never put in those same positions.”
Veteran strong safety Chris Hope was partially the issue. He wasn’t the in-the-box presence he’d been in years past, and the Titans believed getting Griffin more involved in defending closer to the line of scrimmage would be beneficial. But Hope has slowed down and wasn’t a big help in coverage, either.
Another curious move from coach Jeff Fisher and his defensive coordinator, Chuck Cecil, was made at the end of October: Longtime nickelback Vincent Fuller was taken out of the lineup. A staff that had always been incredibly loyal to veterans pulled Fuller and began shifting starting rookie cornerback Alterraun Verner inside to cover the slot receiver, replacing him outside with Jason McCourty.
“It’s just the way our business is,” Griffin said. “You can understand why they did it, but at the same time, you can’t understand why they did it. It makes sense, but it doesn’t really make sense. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I’m not saying it's the reason things started going bad. There were just a lot of things going on.”
Jerry Gray’s a Texas guy just like Griffin. I expect the two will build a good rapport.
Gray said Griffin is capable of playing free or strong safety, comparing him to the late Sean Taylor. Gray coached the versatile Taylor in Washington.
“What Griffin did best, he got four interceptions last year. I thought he did a good job of tracking the football, reading the quarterback when he was in center field,” Gray said. “But he made tackles too. … You’re going to start him out at free. His identity is going to show up in practices, hopefully before it gets to games. Our job is to not spread him thin and let him go play what he’s really good at.
“Sometimes you may give up 10 to 20 tackles a year. But you gain five or six interceptions. Is a tackle more important than a turnover? If it’s not, then put him at free safety. That’s what we’re kind of leaning on in the beginning and wanting to see if we can make work.”
Hope will turn 32 in September. If he can regain form and the pass rush helps the secondary, things could get a lot better. If he cannot, the Titans don’t appear to have a guy in the backup pool who is clearly next in line at either safety spot.
Young corners Verner and McCourty should be better, and Fuller, a sure tackler, could resurface.
Whoever is on the field, Griffin is confident that Gray and holdover defensive backs coach Marcus Robertson will provide a unified plan that maximizes the chances to be effective and will provide answers if things don’t go according to plan.
He’s most concerned with a return to winning football. But heading into the final year of his contract, he also said a consistent season is mandatory if he wants to ensure a good future for himself.
“It has to be a great year,” he said. “I think they are going to put us in the best situations possible for us to make plays. After that, when they put us in the positions, it’s up to us as players to make plays. If we can’t make the plays, that’s when we’ll point the fingers at ourselves.”