James reveling in being vital cog again

TAMPA, Fla. -- Arizona Cardinals running back Edgerrin James doesn't have a hard time pointing the moment his career started moving in a positive direction again.

It was right after his team's 47-7 loss to the New England Patriots on Dec. 21. James went from being a bit player in a wide-open offense before that loss to an integral part of a more balanced attack after that point. He also knows why.

"The key to winning in the postseason is running the football," he said. "You can play gadget-ball during the regular season and win games, but you'd better have balance at this time of year. If you don't, you're done."

His re-emergence has been a dramatically underrated factor in the Cardinals' playoff run. This isn't to take anything away from the efficient passing of quarterback Kurt Warner, the electric performances of Pro Bowl wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald or the inspired efforts of a suddenly staunch defense. It's just that James was a forgotten man in the Cardinals' offense as recently as two months ago. Now he has spent the past three weeks reminding people of what he really means to this team.

After gaining a career-low 514 yards in the regular season -- and losing his starting job to rookie Tim Hightower midway through the campaign -- James is now giving the Cardinals just enough of a threat in the running game that opponents have to respect him. He's averaging about 68 yards per game in the postseason, and that reliability has led to more play-action opportunities for Arizona's explosive passing attack.

It has also given Arizona a chance to pull one last upset in these playoffs. As explosive as the Cardinals are with the pass, they need to gain something on the ground if they want to thrive against the Pittsburgh Steelers' top-ranked defense here Sunday in Super Bowl XLIII.

Of course, it was hard to imagine Arizona's having any shot of running the ball in the playoffs three weeks ago, especially because the Cardinals had the league's worst rushing attack (73.6 yards a game). But there's more commitment to the run these days by coach Ken Whisenhunt and offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Along with James, the Cardinals can rely on Hightower and the shifty J.J. Arrington, who has been plagued by a recent knee injury. It also helps that Haley is running more plays that James likes, including the stretch play that allows James to use his vision and cutback ability.

The Cardinals saw the value in this approach in late December, when James gained 100 yards on 14 carries in the regular-season finale against the Seattle Seahawks, and they've been more dangerous ever since.

"We started playing my game," James said. "I'm not a scatback type. My game is moving forward, getting positive yards and letting the defense know that they're going to wear down before I do. That's what we got back to."

"Edge is a huge part of [the Cardinals' success in the run game]," Warner said. "The way he runs and his ability to make something out of nothing are huge keys. The difference between a zero-yard gain and a 2-yard gain is huge within the course of a drive. He does that as well as anybody."
James is taking obvious pleasure in his recent contributions because he clearly heard all the talk about his decline. Skeptics saw a worn-out runner who turned 30 in August and was still cashing in on the four-year, $30 million deal he signed in 2006. When James received that contract, there were people who wondered how long he would last after he earned four Pro Bowl nominations in seven seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. His critics grew louder after his first two years with the Cardinals, when people looked more at his average yards per carry (3.6) during that time than his overall yardage (he gained 1,159 yards in 2006 and 1,222 in 2007).

Of course, James points to other reasons for his numbers' falling off after he left the Colts. There was all the dysfunction that hovered around the final season of former head coach Dennis Green in 2006. There was the change to a new offense when Whisenhunt arrived a year later. And don't forget that Arizona's formerly inconsistent offensive line didn't become more reliable until this season.

"Nobody had come to Arizona and gained 1,000 yards after taking the hits I took," said James, who has 12,121 career rushing yards. "That's why I know I'm still good. Who else could come to Arizona and run the ball? If you put me in the right situations, I know I'll kill it."

James also scoffs at the notion that his age is a reason for concern. He said his offseason workouts in Miami were so strong that he expected to have some kind of impact on the field this season. He adds that people who question whether he has lost a step need to remember what his game is all about in the first place.

"People say I can't hit the home run anymore," James said. "But I never could hit the home run. I led the league in rushing with 1,700 yards [he gained 1,709 in 2000] and my longest run was 30 yards. This year my longest run was 35 yards. So what's the difference?"

The real difference for James at this point is a combination of fresh legs and undeniable desire. He clearly hated his diminished role when he was benched for three games and received just seven carries in four other contests. He also had no problems voicing those frustrations whenever somebody asked (although he says comments that he made about nearly quitting were blown out of proportion). But James also worked hard behind the scenes and remained sharp at the lowest point of his career.

As Haley said: "A lot of guys would just tank it in that situation. It's a credit to Edge that he hung in there."

That's why James is so excited to be contributing to a team he always believed could be a Super Bowl contender when he arrived.

"If you had told me at the start of my career that I could get paid a lot of money to do nothing, I would've been fine with it because I would've done some serious partying," James said. "But all I care about is playing at this point. I just appreciate the opportunity a lot more."

The Cardinals also appreciate something else: the fact that James never gave up on the idea that he still had more to offer this surprising team.