Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Playing cornerback for the Rams last season was one of the most perilous jobs imaginable.

Nobody literally got burned filling that role in St. Louis. The scorching last season was only figurative. But one individual after another suffering debilitating injuries while manning those posts.

Can newcomer Cortland Finnegan break that curse?

New Rams coach Jeff Fisher is counting on Finnegan to join James Laurinaitis, Chris Long and Robert Quinn as a cornerstone defender for this team. This was a signature free agent signing designed to help Fisher quickly put his imprint on the team.

Finnegan has remained a durable performer for the Tennessee Titans despite his physical playing style. He didn’t miss a snap last season.

He hoped to remain in Tennessee, where he has been highly active in the community. He maintains a year-round home there.

But Titans management opted to spend its money elsewhere.

“Just like when I entered the league, there was a chip on my shoulder, so this is just another chip to add to my shoulder,” Finnegan told the Tennessean newspaper. “It has become a boulder. I just want to be a great football player for the team I am on next, and continue to be the player I was in Tennessee but even better.”

He jumped at the chance to rejoin Fisher in his new adventure in St. Louis. Presumably he didn't ask what happened to last year's Rams cornerbacks before agreeing to his contract.

That might have scared him off.

The Rams often failed to field the same cornerback corps for consecutive games. Injuries at that position became one of the key factors that led to coach Steve Spagnuolo’s demise.

Last year he had high hopes for Jerome Murphy. But Murphy didn’t make it through the preseason, thanks to the broken ankle he suffered while tangling with Danario Alexander on the practice field.

Veteran Ron Bartell was supposed to be the closest thing this team had to a shutdown corner. He has never been a playmaker, but he has generally been physical and sound in coverage.

Unfortunately, Bartell suffered broken neck bones while absorbing a block during the regular season opener. That finished his season and left Bradley Fletcher as the team’s No. 1 cornerback.

But then Fletcher collided with hapless Rams receiver Mike Sims-Walker during a practice session and suffered a torn ACL in his knee.

Marquis Johnson worked his way back from the Physically Unable to Perform list by rehabilitating his 2010 knee injury. He rejoined the team in midseason … and then suffered a lacerated spleen, ending his campaign.

On and on it went, starting in the summer, continuing through the fall and extending into the winter. The number of eradicated cornerbacks reached double figures.

The casualty list included fledgling prospects (Mikail Baker, Dionte Dinkins, Tim Atchison, Brian Jackson, Chris Smith) and a wizened veteran (Al Harris).

Poor Justin King played through ankle and knee injuries and a mild concussion. A nickel back by trade, he was forced to become a primary coverage cornerback.

That assignment, combined with his assorted injuries, put him in a position to fail. His season was mercifully cut short by a shoulder injury suffered in practice.

Now Fisher is plugging Finnegan into the vacuum, hoping to add a tempo-setting hitter to a battered group that fell into retreat much of last season.

Finnegan is not a big cornerback, but he is unpleasant to play against. He should strengthen the Rams in coverage, bolster their run support and is a punishing blitz option as well.

He should be a major piece for the defensive reconstruction if he can break the Rams’ recent trend and actually stay on the field. Durability alone would make him exceptional in these parts.