FLOWERY BRANCH — The last time Brian Finneran caught a pass in a real game for the Falcons, Jim Mora was the coach and Michael Vick was the quarterback.
Many assumed Finneran would not be back after he suffered devastating knee injuries that forced him to miss the last two seasons.
Finneran was overshadowed by rookie quarterback Matt Ryan’s debut as he made a quiet return Saturday night in Atlanta’s first preseason game, a 20-17 loss at Jacksonville. But those who have followed Finneran’s history of knee injuries certainly noticed his three catches for 33 yards.
Those who hadn’t been paying close attention this summer may have been more surprised just to see his name.
"I’m sure," Finneran said.
"I feel good. I’ve put a lot of work in the last couple of years to get back from the knee injuries. The odds are definitely stacked against me, but so far I feel pretty good. I hope I can make some plays out here and do enough to stick around for another year or two."
There was good reason to doubt the comeback hopes for the 32-year-old Finneran.
It’s difficult for a player to return from reconstructive knee surgery. But two surgeries? On the same knee? At his age?
Finneran worked in sports talk radio while continuing his second rehabilitation last year, and many presumed he had moved on to a new career.
Finneran says he’ll look again at a broadcasting job "if this doesn’t work out."
"I’m planning on playing a couple more years and then hopefully getting into something like that," he said.
For years, the 6-foot-5 Finneran was perhaps Vick’s most trusted receiver. His best year was 2002, when he started all 16 games and had 56 catches for 838 yards and six touchdowns. He led the Falcons with 50 catches for 611 yards in 2005.
Finneran often was used as the third receiver in three-receiver sets. His specialty was moving the chains with his third-down grabs.
Then came the knee injuries.
The first injury came in training camp before the 2006 season. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and suffered cartilage damage and a slight displacement of the kneecap.
Finneran hurt the knee again in May 2007 while going through rehabilitation. A second reconstructive procedure on the same knee was necessary.
Most observers assumed that was the end of Finneran’s career. He also had doubts about starting over and was tempted to retire.
"You know what, after I did it the second time, it did definitely crossed my mind," he said. "I felt I had something left in me, so I kept going on and pushing. I have a lot of good people around me, my wife and family, but definitely there are times when you just stop and go ‘Man, is this really worth it?’"
First-year coach Mike Smith said Finneran was "brought along slowly" early in training camp but now has passed the test of a week of two-a-day practices.
"Brian, if he makes this football team, it’s going to be a great story, to be out for two years," Smith said. "We’ve gotten him into the two practices a day rotation, which is exciting because now we get to feel how he’s going to take the wear and tear."
The Falcons have had two years to develop other options at receiver, adding more difficulty to Finneran’s comeback hopes.
Roddy White had a breakout season last year with 83 catches for 1,202 yards. Michael Jenkins, Laurent Robinson, rookie Harry Douglas, Adam Jennings and Eric Weems are competing with Finneran for roster spots.
Veteran Joe Horn does not seem to be in the team’s plans, and he says he’d like to move to another team.
If Finneran makes the team, he’d help give the Falcons excellent size at the position with the 6-foot-4 Jenkins, 6-0 White and 6-2 Robinson. The 5-11 Douglas, a third-round pick from Louisville, may be the shortest receiver.
"You’re not kidding," Finneran said. "Harry is going to be like the twig among the trees in there. It will be interesting to see what happens at the end of training camp."Notes: Center Todd McClure, returning from a back injury, practiced for the first time in two weeks. ... Horn continues to be held out with a hamstring injury. ... CB Chris Houston returned from a shoulder injury. ... Smith said he was impressed with Ryan’s first preseason showing. "Of course, he saw some simple defenses," Smith said. "It will get more complicated as we move through the preseason and get to the regular season. We’re pleased with his progress to this point."