Edgerrin James never lost Edge

TAMPA - Stars have been benched before. It’s not unusual to see some future Hall of Famers who are getting on a bit in years removed from the starting lineup in favor of a younger player.

That doesn’t mean they have to like it or accept it.

With Edgerrin James, it’s no secret. He was not a happy camper in November when Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt sat him down after he gained just 17 yards and committed a costly fumble in a loss to the Carolina Panthers.

Why would he be? He had just lost his job to a rank rookie (Tim High-tower).

James may be 30, on the wrong side of a running back’s shelf life, but he was coming off a 2007 campaign that saw him run for 1,222 yards - his seventh career 1,000-yard season.

He wanted to play. All great running backs want to play. So he asked to be traded or released.

When that didn’t happen, James had few choices. He could sulk and make everyone around him miserable, or he could continue to work, help his teammates any way he could, and hope for another chance.

James chose the latter. He even boosted Hightower, providing encouragement, support and advice.

The payoff?

He won his starting job back at the end of the regular season, and has been a key contributor in the Cardinals’ improbable march to Super Bowl XLIII. Perhaps even better, he’s regained the respect of his coaches and teammates in the process.

“I’ve really loved the fact he’s emerged late in the season as our go-to guy,” said teammate Sean Morey, the Pro Bowl special teamer, former Patriot and Marshfield native. “He’s been in that (starting) role most of his career, and I think it says a lot about a man’s character and resilience when faced with adversity.

“He wasn’t playing as much as he’d like, but he remained a professional. . . . He really, truly earned a lot of respect from our team.”

James returned as the starter in the regular-season finale against the Seattle Seahawks. He responded with a 100-yard game. And as the Cardinals’ approach has shifted to a more balanced attack to complement Kurt Warner and the extraordinary passing game, James has piled up a playoff-leading 203 yards.

“You want to play,” James said yesterday. “The thing about it, if there was one point where I would have accepted the role and sounded like I was happy, that meant I believed what was going on, and not once did I believe that I should have been on the bench. I never hid the fact that I didn’t want to be on the bench. It’s frustrating, but at the same time, it’s life. In life, you’re not going to get everything you want.”

Case in point his experience with Indianapolis. After seven seasons with the Colts, James left as the team’s all-time leading rusher. The year he departed as a free agent (2006), the Colts won the Super Bowl. While the Irsay family generously gave him a ring for his past service, he finally has a chance to earn one on the field.

“Three years ago when I first (came to Arizona), we talked about what it would take to get over the top. Now, it’s happened,” he said. “It kind of happened under the radar. Everything kind of came together.”

Including his re-emergence as the starter.

James won’t discuss his future with the Cardinals. He’s living in the moment.

“For 10 years I’ve been playing, and to finally get here, that’s big,” he said. “You’ve tried to put yourself in a position to be in games like this, and it didn’t happen. It’s not that I didn’t do something, or that I didn’t work hard enough, or that I didn’t put up enough numbers, it’s just that everything has to work out.”