I was hanging out with Cornell Green, a five-time Pro Bowl cornerback and safety with the Dallas Cowboys in the 60’s and 70’s. Green was discussing the ways the game has changed, most notably the restrictions placed on defensive backs. “When I was matched up on one of those tight ends I would just grab him and keep him there,” said Green.” You can’t do that no more.”

As is often the case when talking old school football with old school football players, Deacon Jones’ name came up. I told Green how I had interviewed Jones and how outspoken Jones is when it comes to today’s game and how it pales in comparison to times gone by.

I told him how Jones had been offended by the league’s desire to protect the quarterback. It was when Brett Favre was in the middle of his streak for consecutive games played. “I get so pissed off every time I hear Brett Favre say he’s played 279 games in a row,” Jones said. “I would rather slap my mama than allow a quarterback to play 279 games in a row. Somebody supposed to put him on the ground!”

I surmised that Jones was right for harboring some resentment because he played during a time when there was little regard for the players’ safety and even less for their financial well-being. Green’s response was short and direct.

He replied, “Well, you have to take into account that Deacon is kind of crazy.”

There’s a place for crazy in this game. Always has been. That’s why I don’t understand why Cortland Finnegan isn’t more popular. He checks out all the criteria. He came from Samford, a small school in Alabama. There was no fanfare, no live camera feed when the Titans selected him with the 215th Pick. He just showed up at camp, and from day one, began to earn it.

Finnegan is an overachiever with a huge chip on his shoulder. That means he has to “work harder” to prove himself. Those words are in quotes because they’ve become a catchphrase for those individuals who aren’t preordained for greatness. We love people who supposedly “work harder,” who aren’t handed things in life.

This seems to be the pervasive theme of this and every election season. “I came from nothing, I had to work for everything I got. I had to scrape and scrounge…”

Finnegan should have our respect. He has mine for his knowledge of football history—something players of this generation mostly lack. He recently expressed his respect for players like Mean Joe Green and Jack Tatum. That last name is synonymous with on field terror and summons an immediate response from fans who ignore the fact that nobody, including Tatum, has a plan to purposely disable his opponent.

Heroes are intimidating these days. People seem comfortable with villains.

That said, I would think Cortland Finnegan, at least in a sporting context, would be the kind of guy who is most endearing to fans. He’s a self-made man. He’s a regular guy with whom the regular guy would connect. I’m forever hearing pundits agree with fans that today’s player lacks “passion,” that he’s only in it for the loot. In Cortland Finnegan, passion abounds.

Forensically speaking, he’s a solid cover guy, a sure tackler, and a guy who would do anything to help his team win. I would think he would have a cult following. Instead Finnegan’s label of the league’s dirtiest player—which he wears as a badge of honor—means that the masses will not praise him.

Let’s consider that word, “dirty.” He doesn’t hit people down low when the play is over, like the Kansas City Chiefs receivers were known to do. He does what any thinking cornerback does when faced with the impossible task of corralling a sprinter with lots of room to run. He tugs on the jersey and tries to get a little extra bump on the run, none of which gives him an advantage as much as it levels the field.

Finnegan’s most effective modus operandi is to supplement his coverage with incessant chatter. He buzzes in your ear until you’re aware of presence. He begs you to swat him away. And should you resist, he’ll entice you with a simple push or shove.

Love him or hate him, Cortland Finnegan's methods have proven effective.

In Finnegan’s vast body of work, his most celebrated case came against Andre Johnson of the Texans. Johnson is a large man. He’s large both in stature, and in good standing. He’s known as a gentleman. But in November of 2010, when Finnegan punctuated a long day of chatter with a punch to Johnson’s facemask, Johnson came undone. He ripped off Finnegan’s helmet and thoroughly beat him about the head, neck and shoulders.

Both Johnson and Finnegan were ejected. But you have to admit that after this, Finnegan became a bit more intriguing. He must surely possess some power by which he lures even the most level headed person into uncontrollable fits of rage.

Last week in a game against the Redskins, Finnegan’s tactic led directly to victory. His bump on receiver Josh Morgan, prompted Morgan to hurl the ball at Morgan, leading to a fifteen yard penalty which took the Redskins out of field goal range.

Even former Bears coach Mike Ditka has taken exception to Finnegan. He said he wasn’t a good player, that he was just “an instigator.” But when Rams coach Jeff Fisher got word of it, Fisher told his old coach that if he knew him, Ditka would love Finnegan. Perhaps this reminded Ditka that he was pretty fond a certain kind of player at one time.

Jim McMahon, the former Bears quarterback was known to be crazy. He was also something of an instigator. But it wasn’t on the field. It was off the field. He directly antagonized the commissioner, Pete Rozelle. Some might say that this kind of antagonizing is much poorer taste than irritating an opponent.

But this depends on time and perspective, I suppose. A “punk” quarterback in the eighties seems far more charming than a self-made scrappy defender in the twenty first century.

On Sunday the Rams will tangle with the Bears, and Finnegan will have a go at receiver Alshon Jeffrey. Here’s a young man who’s shown he’s ripe for the picking.

In last year’s Capital One Bowl, Jeffery got into it with Nebraska cornerback Alfonzo Dennard. They jawed at each other, shoved each other and threw some hands before both were ejected. In the Bears’ second preseason this summer, Jeffrey let cornerback DeAngelo Hall get to him. Jeffrey swung at Hall and got fifteen.

Jeffrey has a mentor these days. His name is Brandon Marshall and he is uniquely qualified to advise his protégé on the particulars of keeping one’s cool.

“We don't want to get those penalties,” said Marshall. “But it’s hard to play this game letting people punk you.”

“We don't want to get those penalties,” said Marshall. “But it’s hard to play this game letting people punk you.”

Enter Cortland Finnegan.

When Finnegan sidles up to Jeffrey, I think I might have the answer to my question of Finnegan’s lack of popularity.

Cortland Finnegan isn’t crazy at all. He’s quite sane. And we know that if we were lined up across from him, subject to the full battery of his punking techniques, we’re not so sure we could keep it together.

And I think for this we hate him.

 

Follow Alan Grant on twitter@ AlanGrant_NFL