- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2009

TAMPA, Fla.

As the Arizona Cardinals‘ regular season wheezed to a close, Edgerrin James found himself in a peculiar place. It was the middle ground, you might say, between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lay between the pit of his fears and the summit of his knowledge. It was an area that we call the…

Well, actually, it only felt like the Twilight Zone. In reality, James was standing on the Cardinals’ sideline, helmet in hand, watching the offense soldier on without him. After 12,000 rushing yards, seven 1,000-yard seasons, 91 total touchdowns and four Pro Bowls, he was being phased out. What few carries the running backs were getting in Todd Haley’s pass-first offense were going to youngsters Tim Hightower and J.J. Arrington.

James, 30 years old and three-quarters of the way through a $30 million contract, didn’t feel he was through. But then, as he says: “I’m from the University of Miami. Confidence has never been a problem for us.”

Still, he seemed to be at that crossroads almost every runner eventually reaches, the one where the cumulative pounding - the dings and fender benders and occasional wrecks - turns him into a situational back. Or a reserve back. Or a former back.

Maurice Carthon, who coaches the position for the Cards, had seen it happen to other runners during his years with the Giants - to Joe Morris after Rodney Hampton came along, to Ottis Anderson when he began to share time with Dave Meggett. Inside, he knew, James was seething. He was experiencing the athletic version of Dr. Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

“It’s just something you have to go through in your career,” Carthon says. “I was just trying to mentor him because it can become a distraction and take away from the team. I think he handled it the best he could. It didn’t totally become a distraction.”

But James’ frustration did come tumbling out at times. The Cardinals were in free fall down the stretch, often losing embarrassingly, and there was nothing he could do about it. He touched the ball just 12 times in seven weeks. In two games, he didn’t play at all.

“If I accepted that role,” he says, “it would have meant I agreed with what was going on. But I never believed for one second I should be on the bench.”

Nonetheless, the December of his discontent was educational. When he was out of the lineup, he says, he started “[seeing] the game the way the other guys do” - that is, the part-timers and second-stringers. “You never know when you’re going to get in, and sometimes you wait a long time,” he says. “So you have to stay in the game, stay alert. I appreciate a lot more now what those guys do.”

Finally, after a horrific 47-7 defeat on the New England tundra, Haley decided the offense had lost its balance, had become too one-dimensional, and turned to No. 32 again. In the season finale, James rushed for 100 yards on 14 carries in a 34-21 win over the Seahawks. The three playoff games have been more of the same - 16 rushes for 73 yards (Falcons), 20 for 57 and a touchdown (Panthers), 16 for 73 (Eagles). Nothing highlight reel-worthy, just enough to give the running game a hint of a threat.

Which is fine by James. He realizes he’s not 22 and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound anymore, realizes he’s not going to get his automatic 25 carries and 100-plus yards, as he did with the Colts. He’s content these days to just be a spoke in the wheel.

“If I do a play-action fake and it makes the linebacker pause a little bit, I did my job,” he says. “If I break a tackle in the backfield and get a yard or two instead of a minus, I did my job. If I can command the respect of the safeties and make them bite [on a run fake] or hesitate, I did my job.”

He’s been doing it well enough so far to help the Miracle Cardinals reach their first Super Bowl - and a date Sunday with the Steelers. How sweet is that? After all, when he left Indianapolis in 2006, there was no shortage of people who told him he would never go anywhere with Arizona, that the club was hopelessly mismanaged and the locker room a virtual mausoleum.

But James viewed the Cards differently. In fact, he saw a lot of similarities between his new team and his old one.

“I think, because of the history of the franchise,” he says, “a lot of people didn’t understand [why he signed]. They thought it was just because of the money.

“But I explained to them that the potential was there. As a football player, you know what kind of players you want to play with. They had two young receivers [in Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin]; they had Kurt Warner [who had already won a Super Bowl]. It was going to be hard for defenses to load up the box. They were going to have to respect those guys.”

Fitzgerald and Boldin, he figured, could develop into a Marvin Harrison/Reggie Wayne-type tandem. Warner, meanwhile, could - at his best - do a fairly convincing impersonation of Peyton Manning. And besides, he told friends, “I don’t mind taking the risk, going out on a limb. I’ve accomplished everything [individually] you can accomplish in this league.”

For a while, James wondered whether his instincts were right, whether the risk would pay off, whether he would ever play in the Super Bowl that always eluded him in Indy. But in the last month, the Cardinals’ offense has confounded some of the best defenses in the NFC and, implausibly, found its way to Tampa. And as long as his club can stay in the game, James shouldn’t be spending too much time on the sideline.

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