Fortunes of Cards' James take turn

Minutes after last Sunday's NFC Championship Game, someone thanked Cardinals running back Edgerrin James for autographing a football for a kid way back in training camp.

"It may be worth something now," James said, laughing.

It sure didn't look like it would be for most of the latter half of the season. Benched for rookie Tim Hightower, James carried just seven times for 15 yards in the next seven games. He didn't get off the sideline in three of them.

So, the irony of making it to the Super Bowl in a season in which he felt like an inmate awaiting his release, is not lost on James.

"I don't know how you define this season," he said. "It's weird. Everything worked out the right way, and that's the end result."

That James is in a Super Bowl is not a surprise. But most people thought it would come in his seven seasons with the Colts, not in Arizona, and especially not in a season that saw him benched for the first time in his life.

A funny thing happened late in the season, however. The Cardinals re-committed themselves to the run, and James returned as the featured back.

Hightower had passed James based on his potential for making a big play, but as the season progressed, Hightower had too many runs for negative yardage. So coaches turned to James, who has averaged about 68 yards a game and 3.9 per carry in the playoffs.

Those numbers aren't astounding, but for a passing team that ranked last in the NFL in rushing this season, they indicate a dramatic improvement.

"They (coaches) could have continued to say, 'O.K., leave Edge over there by the heaters and let him just chill," James said. "But we got serious about playing football. Then we go to the style of play I'm accustomed to and that's a big factor in us making this type of move.

"We got away from just being one dimensional and just passing and running out of the shotgun."

No one saw this coming, especially not James, who was benched before the Rams game on Nov. 2. In the two weeks before that, James had expressed frustration at his diminishing role, then he watched that role change into The Invisible Man.

It seemed his time in Arizona would end ingloriously, and the Super Bowl would remain an elusive goal.

James came to Arizona in 2006 after seven years with the Colts, perennial Super Bowl contenders, signing a four-year, $30 million deal. He thought he could help turn the Cardinals around, although he admits now that he sometimes wondered what he had gotten himself into.

The Colts, who were willing to let James go, won a Super Bowl the season after James left, and his old team made sure he received a championship ring.

Now, it's his former teammates, such as receiver Reggie Wayne, sending him texts of congratulations, instead of the other way around.

"In life, you have to take the good with the bad," James said. "Everything's not always going to be good. Playing football has always been easy for me. I never had to face any real adversity in football."

Until this year. After his benching, James kept a relatively low profile, declining most interview requests. Coach Ken Whisenhunt emphasized that no one was upset with James and maintained at some point the Cardinals would need the 30-year-old running back.

"I just sat there and waited," James said. "I just made sure I went out and continued to practice and do what I've always done."

Most veterans of James' stature - he's 10th on the NFL's all-time rushing list - wouldn't have handled the demotion as well as James did, according to offensive coordinator Todd Haley.

"It's the majority that can't handle it," Haley said. "You get a lot of guys that tank it or say, 'screw this.' But he hung in. He's really a special guy and I'm happy he gets to the promised land, because it's been a long road for him."

James wasn't entirely quiet during his time off. He and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, asked the team to release him, and Rosenhaus let everyone know that James' silence about his benching didn't mean he accepted it.

James cracks jokes about his time off now. He said he learned a lot about sideline etiquette in those seven games and enjoyed the extra free time. "I ended up reading a ton of books," he said.

"Early in my career, if you tell me I'm going to get paid and don't have to go out there and get hit, I would have like all over that (expletive)," he said. "But as the time goes on and realize how hard it is to get into these positions . . . . I've done everything you could possibly do from an individual standpoint. I want to get into that big game and see what it feels like."

James refuses to address questions about his future as a Cardinal. Several weeks ago, it was doubtful he would be back in 2009, the final year of his contract. It had nothing to do with the $5 million salary he was due, because the team has the salary space to accommodate him.

But James wanted out and it didn't seem the Cardinals wanted him back. It's hard to say if the team's playoff success will cause either side to have a change of heart.

"I'm not really worried about the future," James said. "I'm just living day-by-day. I think anybody who is thinking about next week, or the weeks ahead, they're doing this team a disservice."