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Finneran back on his feet again
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Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Brian Finneran goes up for a catch in the end zone in a 2005 game as cornerback Travis Daniels of the Miami Dolphins watches. Finneran, who missed the 2006 and 2007 seasons due to knee injuries, is now healthy and has earned a roster spot with the 2008 Falcons. - photo by JOE RIMKUS JR. | McClatchy Newspapers
FLOWERY BRANCH — Brian Finneran plans to spend some time on the telephone this week, thanking all the people who helped him rehab two years from knee injuries that almost ended his career.

Even those medieval goons in physical therapy, the ones who administered the dreaded "prone knee flexion" exercises, will get some love from the 10th-year Atlanta Falcons receiver.

"Everybody from doctors and rehab people to family members and friends really pushed me," Finneran said Monday. "There’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears — literally all of those things — that went into getting me back on the field."

At the start of training camp, Finneran faced long odds to make the Falcons’ 53-man roster. He hadn’t played since the 2005 season, and two reconstructive surgeries on his left knee figured to be too much to overcome.

Instead, Finneran proved to coach Mike Smith, offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey and position coach Terry Robiskie that Matt Ryan needed him as much as the rookie quarterback needed receivers Roddy White, Michael Jenkins and rookie Harry Douglas.

White, who last year became the first Atlanta receiver since 1999 with a 1,000-yard season, is a clear No. 1. Jenkins starts at flanker, and Douglas, a third-round pick from Louisville, passed Finneran on the depth chart.

But going into the season opener against Detroit on Sunday, Finneran is the No. 4 receiver and ahead of second-year wideout Laurent Robinson and third-year veteran Adam Jennings, the Falcons’ punt returner.

For Finneran, having Ryan named starting quarterback has only raised his enthusiasm for this weekend, but the rookie’s ability to move past Chris Redman, D.J. Shockley and the now-departed Joey Harrington gave everyone a boost.

Finneran compares his new teammate to longtime friend Chris Chandler, the only quarterback to lead Atlanta to the Super Bowl, and former teammate Matt Schaub, who starts for the Houston Texans.

"As a rookie, you’ve got to have a lot of command in the huddle and a lot of confidence in your teammates," Finneran said. "You can compare (Ryan) to those guys because he also has that instant ability to recognize coverages and fronts and know what’s going on."

When it comes to Atlanta quarterbacks, Finneran never met one he didn’t like. He considers Michael Vick, who’s serving a federal prison sentence for dogfighting, a lifetime friend, and Finneran still stays in touch with 2003 starter Doug Johnson.

"You can’t say enough about having a guy on your team like Finn," Ryan said. "He’s got so much experience in every phase of being a professional and a great teammate."

Finneran’s first comeback was bad enough. Anyone who was there when he blew out his knee in training camp two years ago will never forget the sound of that agonizing shriek.

Finneran had just turned from planting his left foot on a crossing pattern when the knee collapsed. A torn anterior cruciate ligament, cartilage damage and a displaced knee cap sent Finneran into a year-long rehab.

Ten months later, Finneran was running a simple route when the "new but degenerative ACL," as he describes it, all but evaporated.

"I just planted and turned, and there was nothing," Finneran said. "It was gone. What was weird was that I walked it off. I didn’t fall down. It didn’t hurt."

But it would hurt soon enough.

About three months after having the second ACL procedure, those rehab technicians were back to their wicked ways, making Finneran lie face down for another torturous round of prone knee flexion.

"They try to bend it to a certain degree," Finneran said. "The purpose is to get the bad leg to bend as far back as the good leg. So if my right heel touched my (right buttock), they would go just as far with my left heel."

Enduring rehab, however, was just one phase of Finneran’s return. He had to learn Atlanta’s third offense in three years while also showing Smith and coordinator Keith Armstrong that he could excel on special teams.

Finneran knew his career stats (187 catches, 2,647 yards receiving, 15 touchdowns) meant nothing to a new coaching staff, so he was more than willing to prove his willingness to crack heads for the coverage and return units. After all, if not for special teams, Finneran wouldn’t have had a chance to prove himself in the NFL despite winning the 1999 Walter Payton Award winner as nation’s Division I-AA offensive player at Villanova.

"People have no idea what he went through to get back here," said linebacker Keith Brooking, Finneran’s teammate since 1999 and his training camp roommate this summer. "He had no guarantees from anyone that he would even make the team."

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