DALTON, Ga. — Chris Johnson, the Tennessee Titans’ all-everything running back hesitated at the 10-yard line following his team’s combined practice with the Atlanta Falcons in Dalton, Ga., allowing himself enough time to share a few words with one of his mentors, Chris Hope.
Hope, Johnson’s former teammate and now a safety for the Falcons, shared in the unusual experience of conversing with ex-teammates while dressed in a red-and-black jersey, of trotting to the sideline opposite the Titans, of trying to break up plays against his old offense. And, yes, of trying to tackle the likes of Chris Johnson.
“I pretty much raised all those young guys and to see them doing their own thing now and being the leaders of the team now, it makes me proud to see that they’re doing the right thing and leading the team and stepping up when guys like myself, [lineackers} Keith Bullock and David Thornton and guys like that moved on,” said Hope, who is entering his 11th season in the NFL.
Hope signed with the Falcons in late June, just before camp began, and is expected to provide depth behind starting safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore. He ran with the second team defense for the majority of Monday’s scrimmages at Coahulla Creek High School; although, as defensive coordinator Mike Nolan pointed out prior to Hope’s signing, that could change in an instant.
Now, the 31-year-old is in the midst of an NFL crash course.
“He’s getting indoctrinated into our system, but he’s a veteran, he understands the game,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “We’re just trying to get him up to speed with our verbage. He’s done a nice job, he’s worked well with our young players, as most veterans will do.”
DeCoud is the team’s stalwart safety, starting all but one game in the defensive secondary over the past three seasons, and will be looked to as a leader yet again. However, across the hashmarks, Moore, a fourth-year safety, is still a bit of a dubious commodity, mainly due to injuries. Moore has started just 16 games over the past two seasons — injuries to his hamstring, quadricep and groin have hindered his first three NFL seasons.
Hope provides insurance for such potential pitfalls.
Drafted in the third round by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2002, Hope enters the year with 109 starts highlighted on his resume. Twenty career interceptions didn’t prevent Smith and general manager Thomas Dimitroff from looking up his contact information, either.
His role with the Falcons, up to this point, is similar to his last season in Nashville: the savvy vet, the competitive guidance counselor. He used to invite guys like Johnson and fellow secondary players Michael Griffin and Alterraun Verner to workout at his home during the offseason. That’s the type of leadership he plans to bring to Atlanta. Hope has a new home now, but his latest undergraduates did not make the preseason’s initial scrimmage any less surreal.
“Being the first game it was [a little strange]. If I’d had an opportunity to warm up, play a couple of games and then play against the Titans it would have been different,” Hope said. “When I looked on the schedule and we got a scrimmage against the Titans and I thought, ‘Wow, I wonder did they set that up?'”
Titans quarterback Jake Locker, who is currently locked in a position battle, probably wondered the same thing while staring down his former teammate from the pocket. In one of the few full-scale scrimmage passes that Hope was required to defend on Monday, he read the receiver’s route and caused Locker to draw his pass back, tapping his left hand on the ball, contemplating his motion a split-second too long.
It fell incomplete; an insignificant play, lost in the shuffle of first-team highlights.
But the Falcons’ aged alternate reveled in that moment after (and possibly during) his conversation with Johnson, cracking jokes there on the 10-yard line. He knew his old signal-caller well enough to prevent a lengthy completion — an occurrence that will, assumedly, be less likely against more unfamiliar NFC opponents — but that was enough for some good-natured banter following the less-than-competitive affair.
When a reporter asked Hope about the play, a straggling Tennessee player mentioned that the veteran did not need any media support or ammunition.
“He already knows it, he already knows it,” Hope said, smiling, not backing down from his position on the subject.
But the only thing truly evident in Dalton was that Chris Hope felt at home, surrounded by the past and present.
It just might take a while longer for him to get settled in.