"It was frustrating as hell when he first got here," says Finneran, who was undrafted out of Villanova in 1998 and did his time in NFL Europe and as a practice squadder. "Fine—first-round picks don't usually play special teams. But sleeping in those meetings, not paying attention? It was frustrating to see a guy like that with so much ability just waste it."
Joe Horn's coda in Atlanta lasted just one season—he retired after catching 27 passes for 243 yards in '07. But his legacy has endured in the form of White's transformation. In their one season together Horn's protégé finished eighth in the NFL with 1,202 receiving yards even though he was catching balls mainly from journeymen like Joey Harrington and Chris Redman rather than Vick—and his ascension continued when Atlanta drafted Matt Ryan third overall in 2008. Says Horn, "I told him, 'Listen, you ain't preparing to become one of the leading receivers in the NFC, a fringe Pro Bowler.' I said, 'Rod, you're preparing to be the best receiver in the world. You've got it right in your hand.'"
This fall, though he doesn't have a reality show or a breakfast cereal (Roddy-O's?), White has looked a lot like the best receiver in the world. His 6-foot frame now packed with 212 pounds of muscle, White has ranked firmly among the NFL's elite wideouts for the past three years—averaging 85 catches and 1,246 yards (with two Pro Bowl selections)—but in 2010 he will far surpass those numbers. (He's on pace for 121 and 1,467.) "People know that when you play Atlanta," says Falcons coach Mike Smith, "you've got to concern yourself with Roddy White."
"Total package," adds Finneran proudly. "He's one of the few top receivers in the league who are triple threats: make tight catches in traffic because they're big and physical, run by you because they're fast, and block for the running back too." To that last point: Although White has yet to pull out the Shanaz on the football field ("If I use it, it's going to be a penalty," he says, laughing), Smith says that White's wrestling background, particularly his knowledge of how to use leverage, has made him "one of the better blocking wideouts I've ever seen." Watching tape of what was probably White's finest game to date—11 catches for 201 yards and two touchdowns against Cincinnati in Week 7—the Falcons' video team determined that he had 11 key blocks on Atlanta's 30 rushing attempts. "Eleven blocks," Smith says. "That's just unheard of."
Says White, "I know I'm doing a good job on defensive backs because their coaches yell and cry to the referee all day about me holding and stuff like that."
White's significance to the Falcons' offense has manifested itself in other ways as well. Dropped balls, for one, are essentially a thing of the past—this season he didn't allow an on-target throw to escape his grasp until Week 10, by which point he already had 65 catches. And he has become deadly in third-down situations, leading the NFL in both receptions (33) and catches for first downs (27) in that category. "He instills confidence in me to know if I put the ball around him—somewhere around him—he's going to make a play," says Ryan, who has thrown to White 166 times, or on 32.5% of his attempts. Tight end Tony Gonzalez is a distant second on the team, targeted on 19.2% of Ryan's throws.
But though White is now a disciplined technician, he retains some of his youthful mirth. On a recent Wednesday his easy, high-pitched laugh rang out through the Falcons' locker room as he showed off his dreadlocks, which he'd fashioned into pigtails. "He's a fun-loving guy, likes to joke around," says Ryan, "but when it's time to work, he knows how to work." White still goes out at night in Atlanta, but rarely, and rarer still because Robiskie has acquainted himself with the managers and bouncers of most of the town's nightspots. "I've got eyes all over the city," Robiskie says. "If he's in there, I know I'll get a call."
Most nights White is content to dote on or talk on the phone with his children—Roddy Jr., 4, and Milan, 1, who live with their mothers in Alabama and Atlanta, respectively—and watch game film or TV shows on his iPad. That was his postgame plan after a vintage performance in Week 11, a 34--17 win in St. Louis: nine receptions for 83 yards, including a 26-yard grab on a key third-and-14; a crucial block on a game-clinching 39-yard run by Michael Turner; and a reception out of the backfield on the ensuing two-point conversion.
"I'll probably just go home and chill," he said as he sat in front of his locker, draped in white towels, with enormous ice packs on his right knee and left elbow. (White still has a wrestler's mentality: He's never missed a game in his six seasons, even after spraining his MCL in Week 8 last year. "It was a grade 3 sprain," he notes. "There's only four grades.") "I'm watching 24. Season two. They just killed Jack Bauer! Well, they almost killed Jack Bauer. They brought him back to life."
A parallel to White's career? He nodded, then pulled out his Blackberry and revealed a text he'd received from an old mentor, one who still sends him words of inspiration before every game. The message from Joe Horn read, "Go out there and bust your ass." White giggled, then said, "That's what he always texts me."