The mere mention of Cortland Finnegan's name to almost anyone in the NFL evokes strong opinions.
Predictably, many are negative.
You hear complaints about his style of play, which kinder critics of the Tennessee Titans' cornerback call "aggressive" but many others label as just plain "dirty." You hear him described as an "agitator" or an "instigator" or a "trouble-maker." You hear words that are inappropriate for this website.
New York Giants center Shaun O'Hara told me during an interview on Sirius NFL Radio earlier this week that he and his teammates knew exactly what to expect from the 5-foot-10, 188-pound Finnegan before their Week 3 game against the Titans.
"Cortland Finnegan ... he's that little Chihuahua barking at you, nipping at your heels," O'Hara said. "He's constantly trying to get attention and provoke something. That's part of his game."
Finnegan had established as much long before this, his fifth season with the Titans. The ugly incident in the fourth quarter of Sunday's game against the Houston Texans -- when wide receiver Andre Johnson and Finnegan yanked off each other's helmets and Johnson punched Finnegan twice in the head and once in the face before they were separated and ejected -- merely put a brighter spotlight on what, for Finnegan, has been standard operating procedure.
The cornerback makes it his mission to get an opposing receiver to focus on something other than trying to catch the ball. Usually, that something is Finnegan, the irritant.
"That's the win for us and that's the win for me," he said. "It's nothing more than me trying to do my job and play at a high level every week."
Finnegan insists he doesn't seek to fight or intentionally harm another player. He doesn't want to be penalized, although he has drawn his share of personal fouls. He doesn't want to be ejected. He certainly doesn't want to be fined. The encounter with Johnson cost each player $25,000, but Finnegan said Johnson should have been suspended a "minimum of two games," because the receiver was the only one punching and, according to the cornerback, was in "rage mode" and his actions were "a hundred percent premeditated."
"If I'm in that role right there, based on the perception that I get, I'm gone maybe four to six games," Finnegan said. "What you're telling people now is if you're a good guy in the eyes of the media and you're a good player and you have a problem with another guy, feel free to punch him."
Regardless of the consequences, Finnegan is going to stay true to what he has been doing since his days as a safety at Division I-AA Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. That is, anything and everything possible to make a receiver's life miserable.
That can mean delivering a quick-jam at the line, where he suddenly extends his hands into the receiver's shoulders on the snap of the ball. That can mean making as much legal contact as he can with a receiver within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, where a defender is only allowed to make contact before the throw. That can mean vigorously fighting off blocks, inserting himself into the teeth of the action, and never backing down from a collision -- or a fight.
"My coach always said, 'The play doesn't care who makes it. Go find ball. Hit ball,' " Finnegan said, referring to Bill Gray, the head coach at Samford when Finnegan played there from 2002-'05. "So that mentality's always in my forefront. The receivers love touchdowns, they love the celebration dance. They don't want to be jammed; they even put in the rule for the 5 yards. Offensively, I get that and you've got to adapt.
"But when a (defensive back) wants to engage with you every play and head-butt you and get you off (your route) and go make tackles, it makes the receiver look bad and he doesn't like it. And that's the stuff I thrive on."
Upon learning that his NFL peers had voted him the sixth-dirtiest player in the league in a Sports Illustrated survey, Finnegan only brought more heat on himself by cracking that he wanted to be No. 1. He can't resist the opportunity to needle, whether it's talking trash on the field or responding to the many text messages he has received since the incident with Johnson.
"Everybody (asks), 'Hey, are you OK?' " Finnegan said. "I said, 'She's got to hit a lot harder than that for me not to be OK.' "
But there is much more to Finnegan than his dubious on-field reputation. He can be charming and funny and highly respectful, addressing reporters as well as coaches with, "Yes, sir" and "No, sir." This also is a man who understands the importance of giving back to the community in which he plays. His "ARK 31 Foundation" is a non-profit committed to serving children with special needs and disabilities throughout middle Tennessee. Proceeds from ARK -- an acronym for Acts of Random Kindness; 31 is Finnegan's jersey number -- go to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and the Special Olympics.
Last week, Finnegan requested and received permission from coach Jeff Fisher to arrive late for practice on Thanksgiving Day so that he could participate in 5-kilometer run for cancer in Nashville that morning with a female cancer survivor. Fisher adjusted the schedule so that when Finnegan arrived, he was able to fully take part in the workout, which he did.
When Gray, who now works for Bryant Bank in Alabama, looks at Finnegan, he sees the same player he coached at Samford: "A guy who just plays the game fast, plays the game hard, loves the game, loves to practice, tough as nails. We would have taken a locker room full of guys like him."
When Fisher looks at Finnegan, he sees "a real professional." He says he has never gone into a game concerned that Finnegan is a risk to draw major penalties.
"I'll guarantee you that 10 out of 10 people in the National Football League would want him on their team," Fisher said. "He plays with technique, he takes advantage of preparation. He studies. He works very, very hard. He plays with anticipation. He plays the game as hard as he possibly can."
It's easy to see what drives Finnegan to play the way he does. The most obvious is the fact he is small, even for a cornerback. When he arrived at Samford as a two-way player from Florida, he stood 5-foot-7 and weighed 150 pounds. He has always been told he is too short and too light for a big man's game.
Finnegan draws additional motivation from the fact that, in 2006, pundits widely assumed he would not be drafted. "This is a young man that did not get invited to the (NFL Scouting) Combine when he was a three-time Division I-AA All-American," said Terry Watson, Finnegan's agent. "And Cortland, had he been invited to the combine, would have placed in the top five, of the last 10 years, of all cornerbacks with a various testing that goes on -- 44-inch vertical, high 4.2(-second) 40, 10-foot-8 broad jump, the shuttle drills."
Finnegan wound up joining the Titans as the seventh pick of the seventh round (215th overall). And even at that, he managed to make his alma mater proud, becoming the first Samford player to be drafted by an NFL team since 1969.
"He's a guy that's beaten the odds his whole career, at any level, and he's determined to do that," Fisher said.
Said Finnegan, "I felt like I wanted to set myself apart. You look around the league and you've got guys that like to tackle and don't like to tackle, like to cover and don't like to cover. Well, I felt like, if you could put that all into one package and try to become better each year, you've got yourself an all-around corner -- someone that a receiver doesn't like."
Just ask Andre Johnson.
Follow Vic Carucci on Twitter @viccarucci.