Cortland Finnegan is the first to say he is not the most talented player in the National Football League.
Rarely, if ever, does he stop there. The Tennessee Titans cornerback routinely runs his mouth as much as he runs all over the field with opposing receivers.
“I think that gets them out of their game, too,” he said. “Most receivers aren’t physical, and they don’t like that kind of stuff. They just like to catch the football and score touchdowns.
“Anything I can do extra, because I feel like my talent level isn’t as good as some elite receivers, I do it. Whatever works.”
In four seasons since he was drafted in the seventh round in 2006 out of Samford, Finnegan has gone from being one of the better draft picks in franchise history to being one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL — two things that were made apparent when he was named to the 2008 Pro Bowl.
A hamstring injury during a Week 3 loss to the New York Jets last season forced him to miss all of October.
The Titans had been struggling with him in the lineup (they lost every game), but the results during his absence were worse. The rock-bottom moment occurred in a 59-0 whipping by the New England Patriots, who threw for 432 yards and six touchdowns. Even though Tom Brady did not play the entire game, they completed 38 of 45 passes.
By the time Finnegan returned in November, the Titans were playing catch-up after an 0-6 start. Finnegan’s quality of play recovered along with his leg as the Titans won eight of their final 10.
“Last year, he finished the year very strong,” defensive coordinator Chuck Cecil said. “But the injuries and some other things earlier in the year led to some trouble, and he didn’t play as well as he expects to, or we expect him to.”
‘A big year for him’
The upcoming season will be critical in defining Finnegan as a player. Is he going to maintain the caliber of play shown in 2008’s Pro Bowl year and the end of 2009 (46 tackles and four interceptions last 10 games), or will his game fall off?
“I think he’s already proven that he’s definitely one of the top guys in the league,” said Cecil. “But he knows it’s a big year for him.”
Considering his stature — 5-foot-10, 188 pounds — one can forget how scrappy Finnegan plays. But a large part of his game lies in the realms of physicality and intimidation. Every Sunday you can find Finnegan in the face of larger receivers, jawing with opponents and never backing down.
“He still has the chip on his shoulder, and I don’t think he’ll ever lose that,” Cecil said. “I think he uses that to motivate himself — and that’s fine, whatever it takes to get it done.”
The aggression isn’t limited to opposing NFL teams and the 16 weeks of the regular season.
Matched up against Finnegan at organized team activities last week, Nate Washington found himself on the receiving end of Finnegan’s verbal ire.
“You got a lot of words that might get thrown around, but at the end of the day it’s all just competition,” Washington said. “That’s no different from the O-Line getting into it with the D-line. The clashing of the words, that’s nothing. It’s just to get our frustration out while we’re all getting better.”
Finnegan’s intensity has a positive effect on his teammates, particularly the receivers who have to deal with him in practice.
“Cortland has a motor that doesn’t stop,” Washington said. “Going against a guy like that, you’ve got to be on your P’s and Q’s every single play, every single moment. You know he’s going to be coming.”
Finnegan sees himself as the catalyst for team intensity, the one who motivates others through his own actions — and words.
“I definitely view myself as a leader on and off the field,” Finnegan said. “I’m almost like a spark plug, you know? Your thing won’t start up if it ain’t got a spark plug in it. If I can be that and make some plays, we give ourselves a chance to win.”
Cecil is a big supporter of Finnegan’s effort. He sees many comparisons between Finnegan and previous motivational leaders on the Titans defense. Leading by example every snap, on LP Field or at Baptist Sports Park, has also earned Finnegan respect in the locker room.
“The thing that he does is he comes out and puts it on tape every day,” Cecil said. “He’s kind of a little bit like Kyle Vanden Bosch in a way, where you don’t say so much, it’s just your actions speaking louder than words. The fact that he’s running to the ball each turn and he’s trying to make plays, he’s finishing. He’s doing all those things.
“Now, does that mean he never gets beat? No, but the fact that he’s dialed in to practice and he’s here every day mentally and physically — that’s a big part of leadership.”
His approach to OTAs and training camps help Finnegan maximize his improvement in between seasons. Now is when he tweaks little things — footwork, positioning, reading body language.
“[In summer workouts] you fine-tune technique,” Finnegan said. “That’s one thing I’m going to continue to work on. I’m not where I want to be at all, and that’s a little disheartening. But I’m going to continue to work day in and day out to get there by the first game.”
As the Titans’ top cornerback, Finnegan guards the best receivers in the league. He lists Andre Johnson, Reggie Wayne, Brandon Marshall, DeSean Jackson and Miles Austin as his toughest assignments on the 2010 schedule.
“Week in and week out there’s not an easy matchup, but I look forward to challenges,” he said. “They make me better.”