White Sulphur Springs, W. Va. – Cortland Finnegan knows what you think, because few are more aware than players themselves of the labels they carry.
So the New Orleans Saints' newest addition, a veteran cornerback entering his 11th season who played for four other organizations before joining the Saints on Saturday, addressed his tag Sunday before he ever was asked about it, a stamp partially affixed in response to a dustup with Texans receiver Andre Johnson, a helmet-throwing episode in 2010 that resulted in ejection and a $25,000 fine for each player.
"When your reputation is that you're a dirtbag, you definitely want to…you'd like the world to think that you add some value in real life to the locker room," a smiling Finnegan said. "You definitely want to do that for these young guys because it's bigger than the game of football.
"You want to teach them all the little things that you learned, you want to play it forward because (not only has) this game given so much to you on the football field, but off. And you want to be able to give that back. Not everybody does it but I hope to be the one to do it.
"I don't think (the label) is a misconception. I think it's a stated fact that people just think that, so I've just got to live with it. It's just part of who I am now, so we'll just take it.
"I never fought it. Sometimes you're the bug, sometimes you're the windshield, you've just got to figure those out. After the incident it was going to be known that you were going to be the villain. You just had to work through that. Not everyone sees what you do off the football field and whatever someone thinks, you can't lose any sleep over. I haven't lost any sleep yet, so I'm good to go on that end."
The job now is to make sure that Saints coaches rest easy with his presence on the field and in the locker room.
Finnegan is a proven asset – a former first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl player (in 2008, as a Tennessee Titan) who has 18 career interceptions, 87 passes defensed, five forced fumbles, 663 tackles and four defensive touchdowns.
"Obviously, he's experienced," Coach Sean Payton said. "I think the vision is as a nickel – a guy who can play in the slot. He has, I think, pretty good football instincts and awareness. We, of course, have seen him throughout his career, most recently in his last part of the season with Carolina. I think that'd be the initial vision—someone that's experienced and understands how to play in the nickel."
Last year, with the Panthers, one of Finnegan's teammates was safety Roman Harper. Harper returned to the Saints after a two-year stint with Carolina, following eight initial seasons as a Saint.
"We came in the same year, got drafted the same year (2006)," Finnegan said. "I don't know if it was a recommendation (to Payton) but he talks highly of this organization and just to be a part of it is a blessing in and of itself. Days are so valued and time is precious, so every day you get to do something you love is added value to your life."
But Finnegan also understands he received a late invitation to the party. The Saints are in full swing in training camp – an offseason of OTAs and minicamps completed, one preseason game played, 18 days away from playing their fourth and final one.
"You've got to gain the respect of these coaches and players," he said. "These guys have been putting in work for 13, 14 days (of training camp), OTAs, offseason. So it's just coming in here and working. They have a great group, (secondary) coach A.G. (Aaron Glenn) does a great job getting these guys prepared. So it's just coming in and adding value, on the field but also in the classroom.
"Definitely got to work hard. They have young guys – you can just look down (the roster at) the undrafted guys and it speaks volumes for their coaching, because these guys are not playing like rookies or free agents. They're playing like they've been in games so that speaks volumes for what D.A. (defensive coordinator Dennis Allen) is doing. (And) A.G. is renowned at the cornerback position and also as a coach. He's a breath of fresh air."
Finnegan is hoping to add his own boost to the Saints secondary, which has been absent cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Damian Swann for much of training camp.
He's hoping to slot in perfectly in the slot.
"Working there and also contributing anywhere on special teams and the outside," he said. "Whatever (Payton) feels, I'm definitely for, but playing the slot is something I've done, especially in this kind of defense. So it's just improving on that, day in and day out."