Mike Garafolo, USA TODAY Sports
St. Louis' Cortland Finnegan is one of those play-every-play-like-it's-your-last kind of guys, and the St. Louis Rams cornerback has a vision of what he'd like his last play to be.
It's not an interception taken back for a Super Bowl-winning touchdown or anything like that. Rather, it's a more fitting dream exit for an aggressive guy many consider to be among the dirtiest players in the NFL.
"Running smack into somebody, and he's lights out and so am I," the St. Louis Rams cornerback tells USA TODAY Sports. "That'd be a way to send yourself off."
A double concussion -- a nightmare scenario for the NFL -- from a guy who has been haunting receivers in their sleep. For seven seasons, Finnegan has established a reputation as a nasty, nonstop self-described "gnat" who has pestered opposing receivers with his physical play and yappy mouth.
He has gotten under the skin of bigger, more talented receivers and has even gotten some of them to snap.
There has been no more infamous moment for Finnegan than two years ago this week, when, as a Tennessee Titan, he got into a fight with Houston Texans wide receiver Andre Johnson.
Both players were ejected and fined $25,000. Finnegan apologized to Johnson, though he still doesn't take back anything that led up to it -- even his telling the Texans sideline to "watch this" before the play.
On Wednesday, Johnson told USA TODAY Sports, "It was just something that built up over the years," and he lost his cool.
But it was Finnegan's fault.
"He's just going to do something that he knows is going to make you mad, whether it's on a run play when everybody stops, he's going to hit you in your back," Johnson says.
"He just kept hitting me up under my facemask, and I told the ref about it. The ref said he would be watching, but it was something he kept doing. We exchanged a few words, and the next play, it kind of got out of control."
Finnegan, who signed a five-year, $50 million deal to follow coach Jeff Fisher to the Rams, is still up to his old tricks -- swatting at receivers' hands, barking in their ears, questioning their mental toughness after drops and doing whatever it takes to get them thinking about anything other than the X's and O's.
"I do know how to get under guys' skin I don't like," Finnegan says. "There are some out there -- I won't name them -- receivers that when you see them on film, they're doing stuff that you say, 'I just don't like that guy.'"
Before a Week 2 matchup between the Redskins and Rams, Washington coach Mike Shanahan showed his team a 10-minute video that highlighted all of the ways Finnegan has gotten into receivers' heads. It was a warning for Redskins receivers to be patient and not do anything to hurt the team.
But Josh Morgan, in a fit of frustration, forgot that lesson. With the Rams leading 31-28 and less than two minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, he fired the ball at Finnegan after Finnegan shoved him, and the penalty turned a fourth-and-1 from the Rams 29-yard line (and a potential game-tying field goal) into a fourth-and-16 and a 62-yard field goal that never had a shot.
The Rams needed that victory. And at 4-6-1, a game and a half out of a playoff spot, they badly need Sunday's rematch with the San Francisco 49ers, whom they tied in a hard-fought game in Week 10.
St. Louis plans on putting up a fight through the final stretch. And, as always, Finnegan will pester receivers with tactics some don't appreciate.
"Just a lot of dirty and unnecessary stuff," Morgan says. "He'll tackle you when you're in a crowd. Try to twist your leg or break your leg. Punch you in the (crotch). Ã¢â‚¬1/8 Poke you in your eyeball as you're getting up. All the Dennis Rodman-type stuff. That's the best comparison: Dennis Rodman. He's the Dennis Rodman of the NFL."
Says Finnegan of Morgan's penalty: "That was boneheaded. Gosh, that was boneheaded. When he threw the football and kicked them out of field-goal range, I was, like, 'What a bonehead.'"
What frustrated Morgan was how many Finnegan shenanigans went uncalled.
"He got away with a lot," Morgan says. "That's what he does, the whole game."
Told of Morgan's account of how he played that day, Finnegan laughed heartily.
"That's never happened before? I mean, come on. This is football, man," Finnegan says. "That's the most pansy crap I ever heard. Tell him I'll send him some flowers for that one.
"Good God. That's hilarious. Sheesh. If I did, I meant it. There it is: If I did, I meant it."
Much respect from Megatron
Here's an amazing statistic: Finnegan has been penalized once this season. Still, plenty of on-field stuff that draws a flag these days once was commonplace, which is why many of the Chicago Bears alumni, who were honored before the Rams-Bears game in September, made a point of praising Finnegan.
Not to him, but to Rams assistant head coach Dave McGinnis, the Bears' linebackers coach from 1986 to 1995.
"Hey, we like this guy. We love the way he plays," McGinniss says they told him. "And he's not even a big guy."
Mike Ditka isn't one of Finnegan's supporters. In fact, the former Bears coach shredded Finnegan after his tussle with Johnson, calling him a cheap-shot artist. Ditka ripped him again after the incident with Morgan, saying Finnegan is not a good football player.
Lions receiver Calvin Johnson disagrees. He says he has much respect for Finnegan.
"It's hard to find a lot of guys who are going to play every play like it's their last, and as much as controversy as he may cause on the field, he plays hard," Johnson says. "I've got to give it to him. He's a good player, I can't lie."
Says Finnegan, "If I was on Mike Ditka's team back in the day, he would've liked me."
Raised by his mother, a strict Army veteran, to be respectful, Finnegan says he has respect for his football elders and plays the way he does to honor them.
"Look at all the older gentlemen that played with the leather helmets and the one-bars (facemask)," Finnegan says. "That's humbling in itself, to be able to do something you love at this level, it's definitely for them."
He jokes that he would've loved to have played in that era. "The clothesline would've been in, and I could actually use that. I can't use that now," he says.
When Finnegan sees a wide receiver slacking off, not hustling, refusing to block or otherwise disrespecting the integrity of the game, he says that's when he gets agitated. And that's when the shoves and the yapping increase.
"You know how receivers are, they're prima donnas," he says. "They want all the touchdowns and all the glory. They don't want to be touched. It's those guys I'm talking about."
Finnegan says the most he has ever thrown a player off his game was in 2010 against the Miami Dolphins. He was covering Brandon Marshall, and Marshall had three catches for 34 yards. Statistically, it was Marshall's second-worst game of an 86-catch season.
"I was completely and utterly in this young man's head," Finnegan says. "He didn't know what to do. It was so funny."
Finnegan's toughest day? When he faced Derrick Mason in 2008.
"I got two personal fouls, but that was the first gentleman who never backed down the whole game," Finnegan says. "I'm talking about my helmet getting knocked off, he was roughing me up. When he caught a hitch, he would turn around and try to run me over. That's not even his M.O., but he was bringing it.
"At one point, I was thinking, 'This is a bad dude. He's roughing me up. And I can't let him know he's roughing me up.'"
Last season, Finnegan allowed NFL Films to mic him up for a game. Watching it afterward was like an out-of-body experience, he says.
"I want to like you so bad," tight end Dallas Clark told Finnegan after a play.
"I'm not likeable," Finnegan replied.
"But when you do (stuff) on scrambles and you hit receivers right in the (expletive) back ..."
The exchange ended with Finnegan saying, "If you knew me off the field, we'd drink a brew and stuff. Hey, I don't like you either. It's fine."
It's evidence to support Finnegan's claim that most of the players he faces actually respect his style and ability to get under their skin. It's what he does to make up for a lack of size and athleticism, and, for the most part, it's within the rules.
It's also a sign Finnegan is a likeable person at heart, with his charity to support kids with special needs (in honor of a late sister with Down syndrome he never met) another sign of his goal to never hurt anyone off the field.
"My sister has to defend me to all her friends," Finnegan said. "She's in the Navy and she's always hearing, 'Is your brother really a dirtbag?'
"She's like, 'If you met him, he'd be 'Yes, sir,' 'No, sir.' Just the nicest guy.'"
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