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Finnegan, McClain Stabilizing Secondary

Posted Feb 3, 2016

Both were free agents on Thanksgiving Day, but now they're key cogs on a defense gearing up for the national holiday that is Super Bowl Sunday.

SAN JOSE, Calif – The day after Thanksgiving, Panthers fans were basking in the glow of a dominant victory over the Dallas Cowboys on one of the NFL's biggest stages, a triumph that improved Carolina to 11-0.

But on the practice fields adjacent to Bank of America Stadium, the Panthers were still looking for ways to improve.

Despite the scores of success to that point, the Panthers decided their nickel defense could use a boost, so rather than gorging on Thanksgiving leftovers, they went scavenging for help for their secondary.

The workout that day included Cortland Finnegan and Robert McClain, who in effect will start for the Panthers in Super Bowl 50 come Sunday.

"The fact that they were 11-0 but still felt like there was somebody they could maybe add to the mix, that speaks volumes," Finnegan said. "Me and Robert are so thankful for that, that they had capable guys but were still trying to add. We're very thankful for the opportunity."

Finnegan was the first to sign, coming out of virtual retirement three days after the workout to fill a roster spot vacated by a long snapper the Panthers had signed after starter J.J. Jansen exhibited some concussion symptoms.

Fifteen days later, when nickel cornerback Bene Benwikere broke his leg, the Panthers added McClain.

"When I first signed with Carolina, I remember joking around with him about it, about how we worked out together and are now on the same team," McClain said. "The next thing you know, we're in the Super Bowl.

"I couldn't have painted a better picture than this."

McClain intercepted a pass in the regular season finale after taking over for injured starter Charles Tillman, then he took over as starter in the postseason when Tillman was diagnosed with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. Finnegan, playing in the nickel spot previously held by Benwikere, had an interception in the Panthers' first-half onslaught against Seattle in the NFC Divisional round.

"Both of them have stepped up and made some pretty big plays and interceptions," assistant defensive backs coach Richard Rodgers said. "When you bring guys in, your never truly know what you're getting, but those two have been pretty good for us."

While Rodgers doesn't remember a lot of specifics from the duo's workout together – "we work out so many guys," he said – a few things stuck out to assistant head coach/secondary Steve Wilks.

"The thing I most look for from guys who have been sitting on the couch for a while is how in shape they are," Wilks said. "I remember that those guys were in shape, which told me they were still working on their craft. When you bring a guy like that, you know he's serious about his job. They got through the drills without getting fatigued.

"Cortland, his footwork and agility were outstanding. Robert showed great ball skills. Those things really stood out, too."

Finnegan got the first call after thinking his career might have already reached last call. A veteran of nine NFL seasons with one Pro Bowl appearance to his credit, Finnegan had virtually turned in retirement papers when the Patriots and then the Panthers showed interest.

"I got a call from New England first, and that put me on the radar for Carolina," Finnegan said. "I thought, ‘You know, I love competing, so let's just try this.' "

It had to initially be a hard pill to swallow for McClain, who counted the Panthers as the 10th team to work him out since the Patriots had waived him in the preseason. But he too eventually got the call and rejoined the team that he spent his rookie season with after being picked in the seventh round of the 2010 NFL Draft.

"They welcomed me like a member of the family," McClain said, "as if I'd been here the entire season."

Finnegan recalls seeing McClain walk into the locker room for the first time.

"We high-fived each other because now we have a chance, a chance to go to the dance," Finnegan said. "We feel like it was meant to be here. There's a reason we're here, now let's make the most of it."