Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!
Cortland Finnegan was a human punching bag.
Young corners Jamar Taylor and Steven Clarke took turns wailing on him, jabbing Finnegan’s chest with both hands.
And each time, he essentially asked, “Thank you sir, may I have another?”
No, this wasn’t some new initiation ritual, like a pledge receiving a paddle, welcoming Finnegan to the club.
It was a lesson. Finnegan stayed late after Miami Dolphins practice Monday, in the thick and muggy afternoon air, to help his teammates get better – if even by a bit.
“Simple stuff, press technique, that they can work on as well as I can,” Finnegan said of the tutorial. “We’re all trying to get better. We’re only as good as your second string or third string, and those guys are one play away from being in the game. Any time we can get them up to speed on everybody’s level, it builds a better football team.”
This side of Finnegan would surprise those who only know his bad-boy rep from his Tennessee Titans days, with his epic, physical – and occasionally over the line – battles with Houston Texans receiver Andre Johnson. (Finnegan did admit with a bit of relish Monday that he can be known as a bit of a “jerk.”)
But his softer, elder statesman Jekyll to his aforementioned Hyde is a big reason why the Dolphins offered Finnegan a two-year, $11 million contract earlier this year.
The size of that deal surprised many, considering the one-time All-Pro regressed in each of the past two, injury-plagued seasons. But so far in the Dolphins’ organized team activities, he has shown signs of a resurgence.
Finnegan has worked as the Dolphins’ first-team cornerback throughout the spring, and was part of a unit that won the day during Monday’s open practice. Focusing on red zone and goal line, the Dolphins’ offense struggled to get open, and passes were batted down (or dropped) as often as caught.
That end of the field was a strength for the Dolphins’ defense in 2013, allowing just 17 touchdown passes – third-fewest in football. And if Finnegan, 30, can again play at anywhere near the level that he did five years ago, it could be even better.
“I think he’s caught onto the system well,” said Dolphins coach Joe Philbin. “He’s a bright guy. Every system has its own techniques and fundamentals. He’s kind of kept an open mind to doing things the way we want them done.”
Priority No. 1 for Finnegan is to stay healthy. A leg injury slowed him for much of 2012. And he broke his orbital bone in 2013, finishing the season on injured reserve after experiencing blurred vision.
Finnegan tried to shrug off durability concerns Monday, saying he feels like a 1998 Honda Accord with a souped-up engine and air conditioning but no power windows. Yet Philbin acknowledged the team might have to limit Finnegan’s practice snaps during the season in an effort to keep him fresh for games.
Plus there’s no guarantee that his eye injury won’t be an issue down the road.
Asked if he was concerned about any permanent vision damage, Finnegan responded: “If I was, it’s going to be long-term, down the road. Right now, we’re worried about playing football.”
And about making his teammates better football players – even those such as Taylor competing with him for a starting job.
“Any time you have someone like that who’s been playing that long and wants to help you, knowing you’re coming out here and competing, it’s good,” Taylor said. “It’s a friendly competition. Whoever wins the battle, wins the battle, but we’re going to come out here and work, get each other better for Sundays.”