Super Bowl Parties/Activities with proCanes

SPP Sports Celebrity Flag Football Challenge

What it is: On a weekend when most celebrity events charge an arm and a leg for admission, this one is cheap, accessible — and on the beach. Football players and entertainers will compete in this seventh annual flag football matchup.

When and where: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Tradewinds Island Grand Beach Resort, 5500 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach.

Who will be there: Doug Flutie, who will perform with his Flutie Brothers Band, as well as players including Chad "Ocho Cinco" Johnson, Clinton Portis, Willis McGahee, Julius Jones, Bernard Berrian, Jon Beason, Phillip Buchanon, Earnest Graham and Tae Bo master Billy Blanks.

Can you get in? Definitely. Tickets are $10 online and $15 at the door. Parking is available at the City of St. Pete Beach public lot at 155 Corey Ave., and the Sweetbay parking lot at 7625 Blind Pass Road. There will be a shuttle from both lots to the Tradewinds running from 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.

What else? The day will also feature giveaways, a kids' scrimmage, hospitality areas and meet-and-greets for select VIPs, and more. And the cameras will be rolling — SPP Sports is producing a 30-minute broadcast from the event that'll air at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 7 on FSN Florida. — Jay Cridlin

The "U'' well-represented by Cardinals' James, Rolle, Campbell

TAMPA — This state has its share of big-time football programs, with the University of Florida and Florida State leading the way in more recent years.

But when it comes to the NFC Champion Arizona Cardinals, one school leads the way: the "U."

That's the University of Miami, the home of five national championships since 1983, two Heisman trophy winners and Cardinals players Edgerrin James, Antrel Rolle and Calais Campbell. (Although Florida State graduates Anquan Boldin and Darnell Dockett may disagree).

"I got text (messages) from Edge and Antrel right after I was drafted by the Cardinals," Campbell said. "It's a big brother-type thing."

As the Cardinals prepare for Sunday's Super Bowl at 6 p.m. at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium, these three players will be focused on the red and white -- but they still bleed orange and green.

"I'm always helping recruit (to Miami)," said James, an Immokalee native. "We're the ones that set the trend for everyone else (in Florida)."

James' commitment to Miami might be the most visible of the three Cardinals players -- the 30-year-old star running back made a $250, 000 donation to his alma mater in 2000, the largest amount of money ever donated to Miami by a former Hurricanes athlete, and the team meeting room is named after him. He was selected to the school's Ring of Honor in September.

But Rolle and Campbell also add to the South Florida feel on this Southwestern NFL team.

"It was like no other, man," Rolle said, reminiscing about his Miami team's national championship in 2001. "I've never been part of an organization where I didn't work for myself, I worked for the guy next to me. It was a team of brothers."

Of the three Cardinals from UM, Rolle best represents the program's glory years -- he was at Miami from 2001-04, when the Hurricanes advanced to the national championship twice and played in the Orange Bowl and the Peach Bowl his other two seasons.

A Miami-area native himself, Rolle attended South Dade High School, where he was an all-American, before choosing the hometown Hurricanes. The then-cornerback was an All-American in college, too, and a first-team all-Atlantic Coast Conference player as a senior. The Cardinals then chose Rolle eighth overall in the 2005 NFL Draft, and he has been a regular in Arizona's defensive backfield since, picking up five interceptions in 2007 and 77 tackles in 2008.

As for James, his future at Miami looked bright after the Hurricanes won the 1994 National Championship in James' junior year of high school. But Miami received NCAA sanctions in 1995 before James arrived, and his sophomore year the Hurricanes were 5-6, including an embarrassing 47-0 loss to Florida State. Still, James rushed for 1,098 yards on just 184 attempts.

James left Miami after his junior year as the only player in school history to post back-to-back seasons of 1,000 yards rushing or better. The program had started to rebound, with a 9-3 record in 1998 including a 49-45 win against then-No. 2 UCLA.

Despite Miami's recent problems, James' support for the Hurricanes hasn't wavered, even given his sanction-ridden experience there.

"You have to understand why the program is that way," said James, addressing the Hurricanes' 5-7 season in 2007 and 7-6 campaign in 2008. "We've had guys that are consistently good enough to leave. ... No other school could come back right away after losing that many players."

Campbell was part of that exodus from Miami. The rookie defensive end left the Hurricanes after his junior season and was picked up by the Cardinals in the second round of the 2008 NFL Draft.

"He's the baby of the group," Rolle joked. "But you've got to look out for him."

Campbell, 6-foot-8 and 282 pounds, was a first-team All-American for the Hurricanes after a streak of seven straight games with a sack as a sophomore. He was highly recruited by several big-time football schools after earning a Colorado high school record of 58 sacks in his four seasons.

"I had an opportunity to go a lot of places," Campbell said. "But I still had a good time at UM. To me, it still taught me what I needed to know ... They just need to get back that, well, swagger is what we called it when I was there."


James never too far from his deep roots

The high school coach thinks of Edgerrin James when he looks at the football field.

"He wrote a check to upgrade our facilities, our field, a big number like $100,000," Israel Gallegos said.

The restaurant manager thinks of James when it gets crowded.

"He didn't go to New York for the big NFL Draft party — he stayed here and threw a party for everyone," Linda Lozano says at the Mexican restaurant, Lozano's. "It was packed. People waited outside."

The cousin thinks of James when she goes home, considering the house was a gift from James. And when she goes to their grandmother's home at Second Street, considering the renovations made by James.

"That used to be a nightclub," Tammy Means says, pointing at a redone stucco home. She points to the similar home beside it. "That used to be a crack house."

James bought both, re-did both and called them the "Fun House." It's a summer place where kids can lift weights, watch TV, play on computers or play basketball on the outdoor court. James bought them and re-built them years ago.

He holds a summer celebrity basketball game that brings a couple dozen NFL players to town. It was played at Immokalee High the first couple of times, but James didn't like people having to pay to watch, Means said. He moved it to the Fun House.

"It's free," Means said.

The sports world is full of people who left their hometown and never came back. Never gave back. Never even looked back, because it was too twisted and painful and rife with riff-raff. James' past is no different.

His father kept his distance. The family ate off food stamps.

Three brothers and an uncle are in prison, the result of drugs, violence or some volatile combination of the two. Immokalee isn't the land of opportunity, what with the agricultural-based economy and 46 percent poverty rate for children under 18.

Role models? James had his mother and grandmother. He also had the guys with a wad of money from selling drugs who paid him $100 for every touchdown he scored in high school.

"I scored five touchdowns a few games," he said.

Now, two hours south of the Super Bowl he'll play in Sunday, James still makes his mark. Just last week, he was in town. On Second Street, where a teenage James bought crack cocaine for addicts and watched them get high for entertainment, he paid a couple junkies $20 to spot weights for him in the Fun House. Just to get them off the street.

The stories pile up like that. He filled up a semi-truck of food and water when Hurricane Wilma buckled Immokalee in 2005, then helped pass out relief to anyone who needed it. He bought rings for the Immokalee High State football champions in 2004, then showed up to present them to the team.

A weekend for 60 kids to Disney World? School clothes for kids who need it? Uniforms for Pop Warner teams?

"Lots of things people don't need to know about, too," Means says.

She sits in her teen-counseling office and tells how she was woken up one night several years ago by a phone call from James. He had bought a home for her. She could move in immediately.

"You know how many homes he has bought for people?" she asks.

She counts seven families from his family tree he's bought homes. But here's the kicker to this: The homes are in Orlando. He didn't want to just give them a house. He wanted to give them a chance, where there better jobs and upgraded dreams.

That was finalized when his younger brother, Cherron, returned to prison in 2006. Cherron had moved to Indianapolis to live with Edgerrin, who was then a Colt. Things were going well. He then returned to Immokalee for two weeks and assaulted a police officer.

"That broke my heart, him going to prison again," James said in Tampa.

James is 30 now. He's 10 years in the league from the University of Miami. He has had the strangest of years, benched, forgotten and then rising like the city where he plays by rushing for two 73-yard games in the playoffs. Some think he's the key to the Super Bowl. James thinks of the road up I-75.

"I'd like to bring all of Immokalee up for this one," he said.

At the sheriff's office, Tim Howell, says James already has. Look who he's helped. What he's done. Even the crime rates decreased in the area since the Fun House opened. Then again, the gifts don't surprise the deputy.

He was James' high school coach, after all. When James made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, he told Howell to pack some luggage. Howell was going to Hawaii with him. All expenses paid, of course.

Dave Hyde can be reached at

Patient James on Edge of ultimate reward, revenge

TAMPA, Fla. -- This is my dream scenario for Edgerrin James:

In Super Bowl XLIII, he rushes for 150 yards and two touchdowns. He's named the game's MVP. The confetti falls, the smiles beam. The team gathers on the podium at midfield. James is passed the Lombardi Trophy, gives it a kiss, and then is asked to say a few words.

James takes hold of the microphone, clears his throat, looks into the camera and then tells the American people:

"And to those of you who doubted me, including the coaches on the Arizona Cardinals staff, please take a moment, pucker up real big, and kiss my round, ample behind."

If there is a god in this universe, that will happen.

Few great players in recent years have been so disrespected as James, who underwent the kind of postseason resurgence that has earned him the right to say, "I told you so."

It's James' heart, almost as much as Larry Fitzgerald's gams and Kurt Warner's game, that's allowed the improbable and impossible Cardinals to flourish.

And the coaches on the Cardinals, who basically benched and humiliated James, should please stop talking about how much they now like him. The tulips and love taps emerging from that staff come off as shallow and bankrupt.

The Cardinals treated James like garbage and James in return put a clown suit on the staff. The only thing missing is a red nose and floppy feet.

"He is a veteran that has been to the playoffs a number of years that understands what it takes to be successful at this time of the year," Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said. "We have said all along that were going to need Edge, especially in the playoffs, and that has come true because he has been a big part of the reason why we have had success."

Oh really? You knew all along you'd need James?

No one believes that except gullible Cardinals fans jumping on the bandwagon.

Of all the stories in this Super Bowl, Revenge of the Edge might be the best.

He leads the league in postseason rushing yards and even more fascinating about James -- and reassuring -- is that he never threw a public tantrum about his exile. You know James was hurt and angry over his treatment yet there was no sideline blowup or scream-fest after he was benched and treated like a melted candy bar stuck in a pair of jeans that just went through the wash.

"Nobody else can complain about their time or role on the team if the superstar on our team has acted gracefully in that situation," Cardinals receiver Sean Morey said. "He really, truly earned a lot of respect from the team. We understood that it is more about the team than any one individual. He encapsulated that lesson."

James says all the right things. He talks about how he wanted to play but never publicly crosses the line into outright petulance.

It cannot be understated how much respect James earned in that locker room by mostly keeping his cool. It was something noticed particularly by the man taking many of his snaps, Tim Hightower.

"Our relationship got even better, and that's the funny part of it," Hightower said. "The more I played, the more he was talking to me. And every single time I'd come off of the sideline, he'd point out things that he saw. He showed me how to watch film. He was calling me every day to make sure I put the right things in my body, that I was taking care of my body. It just blows my mind away to think that someone could be so selfless, even in spite of it.

"He should have had no vested interest in helping this rookie out, and yet he was the bigger man and he did. I'm forever grateful and thankful for him to do that. He didn't have to do that. Our relationship got better, and it's getting better right now."

Then Hightower added something fairly striking.

"People don't understand the half of what he went through, and they don't understand the half of what he meant to me," Hightower said. "You really can't understand it unless you experience it. For me, he served as a friend, a mentor, a brother, a father, all in one -- a teammate, a coach, all in one. It's not very often that you get to experience that much in one person at one time. I don't know how he knows what he knows, but he knows something about everything. He's not shy to share those things with me, trying to make me the best I can be."

That about says it all.

Make my dream come true, Mr. James.

Then ride off into the free-agent sunset. You deserve it.


Damione Fighting for a Roster Spot?

PANTHERS: The Panthers just signed DT Damione Lewis to a new contract last offseason, but the team may address his deal again before free agency begins in late February, we hear. Lewis is due a $2.5 million roster bonus and has a cap figure $6.8 million for 2009. He had surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff, which is expected to keep him out until at least July, after having injured it in a Dec. 21 loss to the Giants. The Panthers want to make upgrades at defensive tackle, and Lewis should expect some competition in training camp, if he’s healthy and still with the team.


New 49ers O.C. sees bigger role for Gore

Following that theme, Jimmy Raye II, who is joining San Francisco as offensive coordinator, told the Sacramento Bee he sees a lot of similarities between the 49ers and the Chiefs squads he coached from 1998-2000. For what it's worth, here's how those offenses ranked:

1998: 19th overall (16th passing, 23rd rushing) 1999: 12th overall (22nd passing, 4th rushing) 2000: 8th overall (5th passing, 25th rushing)

Those teams never had a back like Frank Gore, though. Raye said Gore "seems like he has the capability to carry the ball 25 times" a game. That's great news for owners planning on drafting/keeping Gore, who averaged just 17 carries per game in '08 (20 touches per game).

Of course, this is just early pre-preseason talk from an optimistic, incoming coordinator. But it should be noted that Raye also said he plans to use a system that blends the one Norv Turner ran in S.F. in '06 with his own from K.C. For the record, Gore totaled 2,180 yards and nine TDs in '06, while averaging 19.5 carries and 3.8 catches per game.

Gore checks in at No. 11 in our early '09 RB rankings, but are you willing to take him even higher based on his past performances and Raye's optimism? I like Gore in PPR leagues, especially late in the first round, but I'm still hesitant to rely on an injury-prone RB in a questionable offense in non-PPR leagues.


Will God guide Ray Lewis to Valley Ranch?

Ray Lewis had avoided the reporters who cover the Ravens since the end of the season until the Baltimore Sun tracked him down in Tampa yesterday.

Lewis was noncommittal about whether he'd re-sign with the Ravens or depart in free agency.

"What I'm thinking, nobody needs to know," Lewis said. "I've given my prayers to God. It's between me and him. It's nobody else's business. That's between me and God."

We'll see whether Jerry Jones can get involved in that conversation.


Super Bowl scorers: Where'd they go to school?

Scoring a touchdown is an exciting accomplishment. It inspires end zone dances, slum dunks over goal posts, leaps into the bleachers and any number of other creative and often outrageous acts.

A touchdown scored in the Super Bowl – football's biggest stage – likely multiplies the excitement at least tenfold. Consider that of all the men to play football, only 161 have reached the end zone in the Super Bowl.

Three of them have come from Wyoming, a program with a decent history but certainly not a national power. Yet Wyoming has had as many alums score Super Bowl touchdowns as Florida State, Georgia, Penn State, UCLA and USC and more than Florida, Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, Texas and Oklahoma.

These days, the Big Ten is criticized as a struggling conference, but 25 players from current Big Ten schools have scored touchdowns – more than any other conference.

Following is a list of college football programs that produced players who have scored Super Bowl touchdowns; we also provide the answers to Wednesday's trivia questions.

Trivia answers

1. What university has produced the most players who have scored Super Bowl touchdowns? Miami has had eight players; Notre Dame is second with six.

Miami (8) Bill Miller, Oakland (scored 2) Pete Banaszak, Oakland Ottis Anderson, New York Giants (2) Michael Irvin, Dallas (2) Jimmie Jones, Dallas Duane Starks, Baltimore Ravens Devin Hester, Chicago Reggie Wayne, Indianapolis

Thanks to 305to917 for sending us the link to this story to post!


Cardinals' Edgerrin James literally enjoying ride of his life

Edgerrin James figured he needed some wheels for Super Bowl week to cruise around Tampa. Most people would go out and rent a car.

Not Edge.

The Arizona Cardinals running back special-ordered a brand new Lamborghini, silver exterior with crushed red velvet interior, the color of his Cardinals.

"My first time seeing it was the day it got here, so I had to kinda learn how to drive it and everything on the fly," James said. "I bought it out of Miami and had it shipped up here. The day we had off last week, Thursday, we went by the Lamborghini store and scoped it out."

But in preparation for the Super Bowl, you wouldn't think the Edge had much time to be tooling around, taking in the sights.

"I drive it after practice and whenever we get some free time," he said.

So, Edge, why the Lamborghini?

"Because it's a special car. It's something no one has," James said. "It's fast and it's one of those cars that you don't drive all the time. I don't like to really drive that much so it's fitting; it's perfect for someone like me.

"You don't have to drive it all the time, you know ... it's one of those things where less is more."

And why this week?

"Why not?" James said. "Because it's the Super Bowl and this is a fun week. Why not have it?"


Cardinals Notebook: Rolle has eyes on prize

TAMPA, Fla. -- Dexter Jackson's name came up yesterday. Arizona safety Antrel Rolle broached the subject because that Tampa Bay safety was the last defensive MVP of a Super Bowl, a feat Rolle aims to duplicate.

"He had three picks. Went to the house with one. That could be me. I'm definitely trying to steal that trophy," Rolle said of the Super Bowl XXXVIII star.

Yet, to Steelers followers, Jackson stands as a potential cautionary tale in the Steelers' Super Bowl XLIII match with six of its former coaches and four of its former players toiling for the Steelers West that is the Arizona Cardinals. Did Jackson perform so capably against quarterback Rich Gannon and the Oakland Raiders because new Tampa coach Jon Gruden schooled his Buccaneers about his former team?

"I don't know if it's a jump," rookie Cardinals cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie said of the inside Steelers information on hand for Arizona, "but I could say that they understand their [old] team a little better."

"We have a pretty good idea. ..." Rolle said of the Steelers' offense. "As I'm sure they have a pretty good idea of what we're doing. You always have a few wrinkles, a few trick plays here or there. But, at the end of the day, you still got to play football."

"I don't even think about that," added running back Edgerrin James. "In the NFL, there are really no secrets. That 'this guy likes to do that, this guy likes to do this,' you watch that on film. Nobody really gives you inside information unless they give you personal information, and I really don't want that."


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.”


Cardinals RB James has fared well vs. Steelers in recent years...

How will the Cardinals cope with the Steelers’ tough run defense on Sunday?

You may hear some suggest that the Cardinals will all but abandon the run and go to a pass-heavy attack, but unless Arizona falls behind by a considerable margin early — think at least two TDs — I think the Cardinals are going to stick with the run. This strategy has worked well for them to this point. They are averaging 111 yards on the ground in the postseason, which reflects the success they have had as well as a general intent to have a more balanced offense.

There’s another reason for the Cardinals to keep running until they absolutely have to stop: RB Edgerrin James has performed well vs. the Steelers in past outings. In fact, James’ 124 yards on 29 carries vs. the Steelers on Nov. 28, 2005 as a member of the Colts is the second-most yards any opponent has rushed for vs. Pittsburgh in the Steelers’ last 91 games (including playoffs). (I omitted Fred Taylor rushing for 147 yards on 25 carries vs. the Steelers last season from my first calculation; my apologies for the mistake.) What’s more, only three backs — James, Jamal Lewis and Taylor — have twice rushed for 75 yards or more vs. Pittsburgh in the last four years. (James also rushed for 56 yards and a TD on 13 carries vs. the Steelers in the divisional-playoff round in the ’05 playoffs. Note that James rushed for 10-47-0 in the first half before the Colts, who were in catch-up mode in the second half, had to go away from the run.)

James racked up 77 yards and a TD on 21 carries in Arizona’s 21-14 win vs. Pittsburgh on Sept. 30, 2007. The yardage total isn’t as important as the number of carries. The Cards stuck with the run on that day, and don’t be surprised if they stick with that strategy in Super Bowl XLIII.


Emergence of Rolle, has Cards' 'D' soaring

TAMPA, Fla. — The numbers don’t lie. Arizona’s defense gave up a league-worst 36 TD passes this season — nine more than the closest pursuer.

But down the stretch of what has turned out to be a very surreal season for the storybook Cardinals, their secondary has suddenly become a primary reason for the defense’s success, particularly at the right cornerback and free safety positions, where a couple of first-round draft picks have picked up their games at just the right time.

You wouldn’t be lying if you called rookie RCB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, the 16th overall pick in the 2008 draft, a work in progress. Same goes for FS Antrel Rolle, the eighth overall pick in the 2005 draft, who was a cornerback his first three seasons in the league. But the progress that both of them continue to make has been impressive, to say the least.

As for Rolle, he’s still learning the nuances of his new full-time position and doing everything he can to master his craft. This offseason, he looks forward to spending much of his time working out with Ravens Pro Bowl safety and fellow Miami (Fla.) product Ed Reed.

“I think he is a real student of the game,” Rolle said of Reed. “He understands the game probably better than anyone. I heard he spends 25 hours a week studying film. So I figured if I put in 25 hours, or better yet 25-plus hours, maybe I can get to the same level as him.”

Rolle thoroughly enjoys his new role with the Cardinals.

“Yeah, I really do,” he said. “I’m around the ball a whole lot. I get to see the whole field. I get to help out on blitzes, both against the run and pass. I get to quarterback the defense. That’s a responsibility I’ve been more than willing to take on. It’s been a great fit for the Cardinals as well as myself.”

Rolle adds a unique extra dimension with his uncanny knack for scoring touchdowns once he gets his hands on the ball. He’s returned four of his eight career interceptions for scores, and in the playoff victory over Atlanta, his TD return of a fumble forced by teammate Darnell Dockett was the turning point of the game.

“My thing is, if I get the ball, I want to take it to the house every time and try to help out the offense as much as I can,” Rolle said. “I don’t try to get too outside of myself, but I know that, inside of myself, getting in the endzone is something I can do every time I get the ball in my hands.”

Rolle had some rough stretches at the beginning of the season after missing some time in training camp due to injury.

“As a result, he had to learn on the fly,” Austin said. “There’s no doubt that he’s a good football player, and it’s starting to show. Each week, he’s gotten more comfortable making calls, knowing what angles to take and directing our defense. And I think he will just keep on improving.”


49ers OC believes Gore can take heavy load

New offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye believes RB Frank Gore has the "capability to carry the ball 25 times (a game)."

Raye's emphasis on the running game combined with new running backs coach Tom Rathman's influence figures to bode well for Frank Gore's value in 2009. Raye's next order of business is bringing in a Tony Richardson type of full back as a lead blocker.


Vilma Update

Linebacker Jonathan Vilma's arraignment has been set for Feb. 6 on the criminal charges of resisting arrest in Miami. Vilma was arrested on the afternoon of Jan. 16 for reckless driving, which is a traffic violation, and two counts of resisting arrest. He plans to fight the charges, according to his agent Mitch Frankel.


Ravens' Ray Lewis sings gospel Friday in Tampa

The Ravens' Ray Lewis will be among a group of players in the NFL Players All-Star Choir that will perform at the 10th Anniversary Super Bowl Gospel Celebration in Tampa on Friday.

Lewis, who has made several appearances locally to proclaim his faith, also participated in the gospel choir last year.

In addition, former Indianapolis Colts and Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy will be honored at the program that has some of gospel's top artists performing, including Mary Mary, Donnie McClurkin, Hezekiah Walker and Marvin Sapp.

The 10th anniversary Super Bowl Gospel Celebration comes to the University of South Florida Sun Dome at 7:30 p.m. Friday, with a fast-paced, high-energy show that combines God, gridiron and Grammy-award winning singers.

Tickets range from $25 to $95, with a portion of the proceeds to benefit the NFL YET (Youth Education Town) Tampa Bay. Local YET participants ages 6 to 18 will open the concert with a performance of their own.

For information and to order tickets, go to The Tampa Tribune is one of the sponsors of the event.


Dolphins interested in re-signing Vernon Carey

Tampa - A source told the Sun Sentinel that the Dolphins are definitely interested in re-signing free-agent tackle Vernon Carey. Free agency doesn't start until Feb. 27, so negotiations will probably heat up during the week of the NFL Scouting Combine (Feb. 24).

Carey, along with left guard Justin Smiley, were the most experienced players on a young offensive line that took a bad hit when promising rookie Donald Thomas was lost for the season in the first regular-season game.

"The Dolphins want Carey back and they will continue to bolster their offensive line," the source said.

The same probably can't be said for free-agent linebacker Channing Crowder, who was lowballed by the team's first offer.


NBA Trade Possibilities

LAKE FOREST -- Since making his 108-yard touchdown return with a missed field goal, Bears rookie Devin Hester has been fielding more phone calls than practice punts.

Old coaches have called with congratulations. Deion Sanders -- his mentor -- and family members have called warning him to maintain focus amid all the accolades. And then there are the other calls.

"A lot of times old friends that I had crushes on in high school are starting to call me now," Hester said. "It's crazy."

Positive Edge: James' response to benching part of Cardinals' success

TAMPA -- When the Cardinals decided to move rookie running back Tim Hightower into the starting lineup in November, offensive coordinator Todd Haley knew how incumbent Edgerrin James would feel.

"Edge is a very, very prideful guy," Haley said of the 10-year veteran who ranks 11th on the league's all-time rushing list. "Of all the players that I've been around, I don't know that there are many that you would look at and say, 'Well, there's somebody who is more prideful than this kid.'

"Edge takes great pride in his craft. He takes great pride in the men who have come before him at that position. He's a historian and I've always loved players who know what has gone on before them. To come in and have it go the way it went early for him was devastating for him. It was an uncomfortable situation for everyone. But the way he handled it was 100 percent class."

You can point to numerous reasons the Cardinals are playing in the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history, among them the re-emergence of the defense, the pass-catching skills of Larry Fitzgerald and the cool under fire Kurt Warner. But high on the list you'll also find the positive way James handled the benching and the decision of the coaching staff to reinsert him into the starting lineup for the season finale and beyond.

James was demoted initially because the coaching staff thought Hightower's speed and big-play ability would be a better complement to a passing game that featured three receivers who surpassed 1,000 yards this season. While sound on the surface, the coaches failed to factor in Hightower's penchant for taking negative yards.

In 2007 the Cardinals had a league-low 34 negative rushes, including 19 on 324 rushes by James. This season they had 48, with Hightower accounting for 19 on 143 carries.

The negative plays resulted in a lot of third-and-11s and third-and-12s, situations that are a prescription for a quick exit from the playoffs. So coach Ken Whisenhunt returned to James, who has averaged 76 yards rushing the past four games. His effectiveness has forced defenses to honor the run and created more opportunities for the passing game.

"When you can run the football, you can run play-action passes and that really opens things up for you offensively," said Fitzgerald, whose 419 yards receiving are a league record for a single postseason. "Opponents don't know what's coming. If you look back to early in the season, we weren't able to do that. We were spread [formation] a lot of the time. We were in the shotgun, trying to beat people like that. But now we've become a lot more balanced."

Balanced best describes James' approach to the situation. The demotion cut him deeply. He entered the season with expectations that he would have his best season since joining the Cardinals in 2006 after signing a $30 million, four-year deal. He was thinking playoffs and a climb up the all-time rushing list, past Hall of Famers such as Tony Dorsett and Jim Brown. But after failing to average more than 3.2 yards a rush in five-of-six games, he was replaced as the starter.

Even so, James never let his personal unhappiness turn into team drama. Privately he asked for a trade, but the team declined. Rather than make a nuisance of himself, he continued to work hard in practice. In fact, Hightower says he and James actually became closer after the initial lineup change.

James not only provided tips and observations as Hightower came off the field during games, but also was the first to call the rookie afterward to make sure Hightower was taking care of his body, replenishing it with fluids and stretching out the kinks with trips to a massage therapist. He also showed Hightower how to practice, how to break down film and how to deal with the media (even when he didn't realize Hightower was watching).

"It just blows my mind to think that someone could be so selfless," Hightower said. "He should have had no vested interest in helping this rookie out, and yet he was the bigger man and he did. I'm forever grateful and thankful for him to do that. He didn't have to do that. Our relationship got better, and it's getting better right now."

The two now represent a formidable tandem. Hightower has come off the bench to score a touchdown in each of the Cardinals' three playoff games, including the game-winner on an eight-yard reception against the Eagles in the NFC Championship Game; and James has rushed for 73 yards in two of the games and consistently provided positive yards on first down.

"It was not easy for him to sit, especially for somebody who has the pride that he has," Haley said. "I have to believe it was difficult for him to keep his mouth from saying what he probably felt -- and he had a right to feel everything that he felt. ... He has a great belief in himself as a runner, and he never lost that when a lot of guys would have lost confidence. He kept believing what his abilities were and what he was capable of doing. When he got the chance, when it came back around, which it usually does in this league, he took advantage of it. I'm just happy for him in general as a person."

James is equally happy for the team, but apparently not enough to change his desire to leave the Cardinals after this season. Whisenhunt points out that no one in the organization has ever said that James will be jettisoned, still James talks like it is a fait accompli. Perhaps it's because he wants as much.

"To go through that again, that's tougher than people think," he said of getting only 11 carries over the eight games he was demoted. "After you've played for so long, it's not easy to sit on that sideline. I just want to finish off strong and go from there, because what happens if I go through training camp and something comes up again?

"I don't have anything to prove. I know what I can do. I'm going to play as long as I'm able to play and make sure I'm able to get into that Hall [of Fame]. When you start doing something, you might as well finish. I'm right there, so why not finish? A lot of people say, 'I play for this, I play for that.' One of my goals was to be one of the top runners of all time. I'm going to try to be, to the best of my abilities, one of the top guys."
Whether it's in Arizona or elsewhere.


Denver native Campbell savoring Super experience

TAMPA, Fla. — Until now, Calais Campbell’s favorite Super Bowl memory was more than a decade old. And it involved the Denver Broncos.
Campbell was a preteen living with his family in Aurora when the 1997 Broncos advanced to the AFC Championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. His dad scored tickets, and Campbell and the whole Campbell family traveled to Pittsburgh for the game. Campbell, of course, wore a Broncos jacket and couldn’t be more thrilled when his favorite team beat the Steelers. The local fans weren’t so friendly after the game.

“I was kind of tall, so I seemed like a grown man but I was only 11, and I’ve got my Broncos jacket on and I’m screaming and yelling,” Campbell, who is now 6-foot-8, said. “People were throwing stuff at me, bumping into me. Pittsburgh fans were real mad. But it was a great experience, just being there for my first big experience.”

Campbell watched that Super Bowl, when the underdog Broncos beat the defending champion Packers, back in Denver. He loved those players, especially Terrell Davis. Campbell had a picture taken with Davis when Campbell was 8 years old. Campbell still as the photo, and is hoping to meet Davis and have him sign it. Davis, of course, is in Tampa for the Super Bowl for his job as an analyst for the NFL Network, so such a meeting surely can be arranged.

Campbell would certainly be happy to anger some more Pittsburgh fans this weekend.

Campbell, Arizona’s second round draft pick last April, has spent his rookie year backing up starting defensive tackle Darnell Dockett. As a die-hard NFL fan — who still loves the Broncos, by the way — Campbell said he knows how rare it is that he’s playing in the Super Bowl as a rookie.
And if there’s any chance he starts to forget, he’s got a roster-full of teammates who bring him back down to earth.

“I’ve been called a spoiled rookie the majority of the time I’ve been here,” Campbell said Wednesday morning during the Arizona media session. “I’ve got teammates who have been in the league 12 years and never won a playoff game, let alone got to a Super Bowl, so they’re letting me know how special it is. I think of it this way: There are 32 teams in the NFL, and all of them have rookies, but only two of them get to have spoiled rookies, so I’m happy to be on one of the two.”

It should be easy for Denver fans to root for Campbell. I know I’m pulling for the kid. He saved my day Wednesday. I had set my bag down on an empty chair while we talked for about 15 minutes, and forgot to grab it when we were done talking. About 10 minutes later, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Calais, who tracked me down to bring me back my things.


Williams will be "a big part" of 2009 defense

If it's the Broncos' offseason, it must be time to wonder which linebacker position D.J. Williams is about to play.

"We're going to try and put every player in the best position that allows us to be as successful as we can," said Broncos coach Josh McDaniels. "Whatever combination that winds up being, obviously D.J. will be a big part in that. And we'll look forward to getting him out there and putting him in position to where he can be a really good football player."

Williams first has to get healthy. He recently underwent shoulder surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff. He has begun light rehabilitation, although his arm will remain in a sling during his downtime.

At linebacker, Williams has played the weak side, strong side, middle and weak side again in the past five seasons. If the Broncos move to a 3-4 defense for the 2009 season, he could be considered for an inside linebacker position.


Portis talks at Super Bowl

Here in Tampa today, the Pro Bowl press conference included Redskins RB Clinton Portis. During the session, Portis picked Arizona to defeat Pittsburgh by more than 10 points.

Afterward, speaking with two D.C. media types, Portis said he and coach Jim Zorn are on the same page but would not commit to attending all of the off-season workouts like he did last year after being given more guaranteed money to do so.

"I’m going to play it by ear," he said. "I’m going to be taking my time. I know I’m winding down. I’m going to take my time and make the decision best for me to help carry this team."

Not surprising considering Portis and Zorn don't appear to have the best relationship. Portis knows he can pretty much do and say anything he wants because of his relationship with owner Dan Snyder.

On Zorn returning, Portis said: "You get tired of all that change. Having Coach Zorn around, he’s going to have the opportunity to learn and we won’t have to go through the massive change of learning a new playbook. Hopefully we’ll execute the system better."

On needing to meet with Zorn to define his role, Portis said: "That’s up to them. My talking don’t do any good – it’s their decision to be made. However they call on me and whenever they call on me, that’s when I get the ball."

On being on same page with Zorn: "Of course we’re together. After the season, I left. I haven’t had a film session with anybody. Football was over with and I left last year behind me. We can’t go back and change. There's no need to harp over it and have conversations over where we went wrong and how it happened. Myself, I’m content getting myself ready, well rested and being prepared for another year."

After Portis' presser, former Redskins running back John Riggins was a part of the Sirius NFL Radio press conference.

Told of Portis' non-commitment to the off season program and if he could become a headache for Zorn, Riggins said: "He’s already a headache. Is it going to get worse? I don’t know. I said that at the end of the season and I believe that unless he changes the way he views himself and views his contributions to the team, that could be problematic for the Redskins. It’s a bad situation and it’s created probably by the people who run the team that he’s been allowed to take the course that he has."


Olsen to be feted at annual Comcast sports awards

LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Tight end Greg Olsen will be honored as the Bears player of the year Feb. 9 at the 21st Annual Comcast SportsNet Sports Awards at the Hilton Chicago.

Olsen had one of the most productive seasons by a tight end in Bears history in 2008. His 54 receptions were the most by a Bears tight end since Hall of Famer Mike Ditka had 75 in 1964. And with five touchdown catches, Olsen became the first tight end to lead the Bears outright in that category since Emery Moorehead also had five in 1982.

The 900-plus expected attendees at the awards dinner will also be able to participate in a silent auction featuring Chicago sports packages, vacation packages autographed LeBron James and Wayne Gretzky jerseys, tickets to a White Sox Diamond Suite, a golf outing at Medinah Country Club, tickets to Chicago sports events and much more.

Dan Ustian, CEO of Navistar, is the honorary chair of this year’s Comcast SportsNet Sports Awards. William T. Barry, Senior Vice President of Draper & Kramer, is the event’s chairman, and James J. Corno is the President of Comcast SportsNet Chicago.

The event will begin with a reception at 5 p.m., followed by dinner at 6:30 p.m. The awards ceremony, which will be carried live on Comcast SportsNet in HD, starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $300 per person. Tables with preferred seating for 10 are $4,000 each. Regular tables of 10 are available for $3,000. To purchase tickets, call Amanda Condon at (312) 596-4722 or visit

Celebrating its 21st anniversary, the Comcast SportsNet Sports Awards has raised more than $6 million for the March of Dimes over the past two decades.


Dallas police suspend investigation of Michael Irvin report that man pointed gun at him

Dallas police have suspended their investigation into former Dallas Cowboy Michael Irvin's report that a passing motorist pointed a gun at him earlier this month.

Police said the classification is being made because investigators have not been able to contact Irvin to follow up on his report of the January 12 incident.

"We've made multiple attempts, but unfortunately we have not made contact with him yet," said Lt. Sally Lannom, of the Dallas police assaults unit. "In order for the investigation to continue, we do need to have contact with Mr. Irvin."

The Pro Football Hall of Fame member, who was not injured, told police he stopped at a red light in the 18200 block of Marsh Lane, near Bush Turnpike, about 9:30 p.m. He said the driver of the vehicle next to him rolled down his window, a Dallas police report said.

Irvin put down his window because he thought someone wanted to talk to him and saw the passenger in the other vehicle raise a gun, the report said.

Irvin said in an interview earlier this month that he feared the men had planned to rob him and changed their minds.

"The passenger pulled out a semiautomatic and I knew what time it was," Irvin said. "But he said 'Oh, that's Michael Irvin, with the Dallas Cowboys.'"



Manager Fredi Gonzalez is on the record saying Gaby Sanchez will get first shot at first base this spring. But Sanchez — who hopes to become the first Marlins fan to grow up and win a spot in the opening-day lineup — says he doesn’t consider himself a shoo-in.

“It doesn’t really change anything. I still feel like it’s a position that needs to be won regardless of anything,” he said. “Everybody has a shot to win the position. I just got to be calm and not stress too much and not put too much pressure on me and let my skills play out.” …

Reliever Scott Proctor began throwing off the mound last week — his first “bullpen sessions” since undergoing surgery on his right elbow in October to repair a partially-torn flexor tendon. “I started spinning off some sliders (on Monday),” he said…

The Marlins’ annual FanFest is set for Saturday, Feb. 7 at Dolphin Stadium. There will be one minor change from previous fests. This one will start a bit later — at noon.


Media day is anything but a drag

Maybe Antrel Rolle can provide some not-so-comic relief. Another media member already has him cornered.

"Three questions," Access Hollywood's Maria Menounos tells him. "First, name one of Brad and Angelina's children."

"Shiloh!" Rolle offers proudly.

"Next, who are Nick, Kevin and Joe?"

Rolle: "The Backstreet Boys?"

Menounos: "No, the Jonas Brothers."

Rolle: "Oh, right. The three dudes with the dark hair."

She later reveals that only one Cardinals player got all three Hollywood questions right.

Atta boy, Matt Leinart.


Fomer UM football stars form bond while helping Cardinals reach Super Bowl

TAMPA -- During the tough times, when it looked as if all they were doing in Arizona was wandering the desert, Edgerrin James, Antrel Rolle and Calais Campbell could find direction in their brotherhood.

The tie that binds them is the fact they all played at the University of Miami. And they argue that is every bit as important as one out of similar DNA.

''It really is a brotherhood,'' Rolle insisted Tuesday as the Cardinals continued preparations for Super Bowl XLIII against Pittsburgh. ``No matter what, it can never be broken. Nobody should even try.''

If you think there is nothing extraordinary about the bond between players at ''The U,'' examine the relationship the three Cardinals players share. They come from different Miami classes and teams that reached different levels of success.

But when they were united on the same Arizona roster, they connected. It was natural. It was expected.

''We have a special relationship,'' James said. ``It's a bond that has been going on for years with players from that school. It's something that no other team and no other school can duplicate.

``It's something that's super special. It's really hard to explain, but you talk to anybody from the University of Miami, they know what it's about.''
It's about men who wouldn't otherwise be friends becoming each other's support system.

When Campbell, 22 and still a rookie, was selected by Arizona in the second round of last April's NFL Draft, the first call he took was from the Cardinals. The second and third calls he took were from James, 30, and Rolle, 26.

''As soon as I got drafted by the team, they called me and welcomed me to the team,'' Campbell said. ``There's just that connection you have that comes from work ethic and knowing what you have to do to get where you want to be. We had that and learned that at UM and it carries over.

``So when I got to Arizona, these guys helped me with getting a house and showed me what people to talk to. They helped with simple decisions like places to eat. They took care of me like a little brother. They looked out for me.''

That apparently applies in times of trouble as well as triumph. And this trio has tasted both this season.

After being drafted as a cornerback in 2005 and enjoying only modest success his first two seasons, Rolle lost his starting job in 2007. James was the teammate who encouraged Rolle.

''Since I first stepped into this league, he's been that guy in my ear telling me the right things to do,'' Rolle said. ``He pulls you to the side and talks to you, he's not a spotlight person. He doesn't tell you what you want to hear, but he does tell you what you need to hear.''

Rolle handled the demotion by moving to safety, where he has become a ball-hawking, touchdown return waiting to happen.

Rolle has nine interceptions in his career and has returned four for touchdowns. He also had a fumble return for a touchdown during the playoffs.
James also has a playoff touchdown to go with his 203 yards on 52 carries. He is again a starter and a key to bringing balance to a pass-first Arizona offense.

But midway through the season, James was practically erased from the offense -- with 27 carries in 10 games between Oct. 5 and Dec. 21. He was benched in favor of rookie Tim Hightower.

It was a difficult time for the NFL's leading active rusher.

''You want to play,'' James said. ``This year I worked extremely hard in the offseason, and I had a chance to pass some of the greatest rushers of all time. You want to build on the previous year, and the previous year I had 1,200 yards, and that was a new system. In training camp we were doing certain things that looked like it was going to be promising, and then we were going in a different direction.''

It was a time in which James could lean on Rolle and Campbell.

''I was in the same situation as him last year,'' Rolle said. ``I got pulled from my starting job last year and every day there was a conversation with him. He'd say, `Antrel, keep balling, keep working, keep doing what you do. They're going to have to play you, they're going to have to put you on the field.'

'And so when the same thing happened to him, I told him, `Edge, you know who you are. I mean, the whole world knows who you are and it's going to come back. Trust me, it's going to come.' For whatever reason, the coaches thought he wasn't getting the job done. But he never let them keep him down.''

The professionalism James and Rolle showed this season didn't go unnoticed by Campbell.

He didn't start any games and had only 25 tackles on defense and 16 more on special teams, but Campbell learned by watching Rolle and James.

''The way Edgerrin carried himself and the way he came back was a great story,'' Campbell said. ``I learned all it takes is one opportunity to be at the top again. You can never get down on yourself. If something bad happens, you let it go into yesterday and think there's always tomorrow and try to better yourself.

``It was a good lesson to learn from a guy I think of as an older brother.''


Cardinals' James still has wheels

TAMPA — Arizona Cardinals running back Edgerrin James is celebrating his first Super Bowl appearance in style — with a sparkling new Lamborghini.

"I always said if I got to the Super Bowl, I would do something I would never do otherwise," he says. "A Lamborghini is something nice, something fast, something everybody doesn't have."

Not that he expects to put much mileage on the Italian sports car, the vehicle of choice for many of the rich and famous.

"I really don't like to drive," he says. "I'm usually in the passenger seat, text messaging and those things."

The 10th-year veteran can be forgiven the indulgence. Despite Arizona's first Super Bowl berth, this season has represented a difficult personal journey before his re-emergence as a force in the playoffs.

After he churned out his seventh 1,000-yard effort with 1,222 yards last season, James was stunned in November when second-year coach Ken Whisenhunt benched him in favor of rookie Tim Hightower, a little-known fifth-round draft pick from Richmond.

In August, James turned 30, a worrisome age for all running backs. Suddenly, there were questions about all that mileage on his legs. Suddenly, there were whispers that he might have lost a step.

The startling move was made after James gained just 17 yards and was guilty of a critical fumble in a 27-23 road loss to the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 26. Whisenhunt thought Hightower might give the offense more spark than James, who averaged 3.8 yards per carry in 2007 and did not snap off a run longer than 27 yards.

Not surprisingly, the decision did not sit well with James. The owner of two rushing titles (1999 and 2000) asked to be traded or released, requests that were ignored.

"At the end of the day, I made no secret that I wanted to play. Somebody else might have been content to get paid and not work," he says. "I didn't want to just be here."

James did not take one handoff in a Nov. 2 game against the St. Louis Rams, the first time in his career he remained sidelined while active for the game.

If James had chosen to become a negative influence in the locker room, he might have done irreparable damage to the Cardinals' postseason hopes. Instead, he helped drive them to the franchise's first division title since 1975 by showing how much he cared about the team.

James turned his attention to helping Hightower through a complex situation for both of them.

"Our relationship got even better, and that's the funny part of it. The more I played, the more he was talking to me," Hightower says. "Every single time I'd come to the sideline, he'd point out things that he saw.

"He showed me how to watch film. He was calling me every day to make sure I was putting the right things in my body. It just blows my mind away that somebody could be so selfless."

Hightower rolled for 109 yards against St. Louis but experienced growing pains after that. James returned as the primary back before the regular-season finale against the Seattle Seahawks, and erupted for 100 yards on 14 carries.

With Arizona emphasizing a more balanced attack in postseason, he's responded with a playoff-leading 203 yards and a touchdown in the Cardinals' improbable three-game march to Super Bowl XLIII.

Whisenhunt says of his return to James, "We knew that if we had a chance to go to the playoffs … that having a back that had been there, that was a good back, was going to be something that we were going to have to rely on."

James appeared in nine postseason games when he played for the Indianapolis Colts from 1999-2005. He then signed a four-year, $40 million contract with Arizona as a free agent.

He needs 123 regular-season yards to move past Marcus Allen (12,243 yards) for 10th place on the all-time rushing list. It is unclear what uniform he will wear when he reaches that milestone.

James remains confident he can be as productive as ever. "I know I can do it. Everybody knows I can do it," he says. "It's a matter of the situation and the right opportunities."

NFL Network analyst Marshall Faulk, a former running back and league MVP who played in Indianapolis before James was drafted, agrees with that assessment. "The only thing he lost was playing time," Faulk says. "Edgerrin is the same old Edgerrin. He's going to take a straight line from Point A to Point B and get you positive yardage."

James intends to meet with Arizona general manager Rod Graves to discuss his future after the Super Bowl. Worst-case scenario? He drives to another town, and another team, in his new Lamborghini.


Cardinals’ James finally reaches pinnacle

TAMPA, FLA. - He signed with the Cardinals three years ago, and lots of sports fans scratched their heads. Why would a big-time football player such as Edgerrin James, who has a shot at the Hall of Fame, go to Arizona, otherwise known as the NFL’s burial ground?

Well, here he was Tuesday, one of the focal points during media (circus) day at Super Bowl XLIII.

James evidently had instincts that nobody else did.

“If you go up and down that roster,” James said, “that was my reason for going to Arizona.”

James was at ease answering questions. He even got off one of the best one-liners of the week so far.

Asked if he liked playing as an underdog, James said, “I’m African-American. We’re always underdogs.”

Another time, he was more candid than he’s been so far about his midseason benching.

He finally admitted that the demotion gnawed at him because, “I worked extremely hard in the off-season, and I had a chance to pass up some of the greatest players of all time.”

His reference: He started out 2008 as the No. 13 rusher of all time.

By playing part time, he only moved up to No. 11, past Hall of Famers Thurman Thomas and Franco Harris.

Had he played full-time, he could have pushed past Marcus Allen, Marshall Faulk, the great Jim Brown and maybe Tony Dorsett, into the No. 7 slot.

“He’s a historian of the game,” offensive coordinator Todd Haley said. “He recognizes and is very aware of the running backs that have come before him in his league.

“You always appreciated that as a coach, when a guy has an understanding of some of the history of the league, because not all players do.”
Clearly, James sees himself in this select class of players who are — or will be — in the Hall of Fame.

“He’s a very prideful individual who has a belief and confidence in himself and his abilities,” said Haley, who also praised James for keeping his cool during his time on the bench.

“You see a lot of guys fail at ... handling that adversity. Edge has just been terrific.”

After James regained his starting role at the end of the regular season, Haley was moved to “put him right in the middle” of a meeting of offensive players just before the playoff game at Carolina.

Haley talked of “what he’s gone through this year” and that the team needed to get the job done for him.

The talk couldn’t have hurt. The Cardinals shocked the NFL, including some of their own fans, by blowing out the Panthers on the road.
“I think Edge is a well-liked player, and guys gravitate toward him; they look up to him,” Haley said.

Agreed Sean Morey, one of the team’s captains and most experienced players, “He’s a consummate professional, a great role model for all our guys in the locker room. The way he practices, the way he studies film, all the things you guys don’t get to see — we see it day in and day out.

“He’s the standard to which a lot of guys set themselves. He sets the bar really high.”

Now, he’s finally reached the pinnacle.

“For 10 years I’ve been playing,” James said, “and to finally get here, that’s big.”

About as big as James sees his place in history.


Deion: Hester can be the best of both worlds

TAMPA--When evaluating the season Devin Hester had, Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said expectations needed to be reshaped. Hester's record-setting first two seasons had to be put in perspective with him working as a full-time receiver because, as Angelo pointed out, never has an elite returner doubled as a No. 1 wide receiver.

Deion Sanders is here to say it can be done and Hester is the man to do it.

"He could do it,'' Sanders said in between Super Bowl XLIIII media day sessions Tuesday morning at Raymond James Stadium. ``You get the right personnel to block for him, sure he can. When I returned punts it wasn't that I was so great, it was the 10 guys in front of me were great and they were blocking their butts off. That's what made me who I was as a returner. That's the same as Devin in his previous years.''

Sanders targeted the players Hester had with him on special teams, a group coordinator Dave Toub was forced to remold this past season. Hester lost his kick returning job in mid-November at Green Bay and averaged just 21.9 yards on kickoff returns before yielding to Danieal Manning, who wound up leading the league. Hester remained on punts and never found his groove, finishing with an average of 6.2 yards and a long of 25, the kind of production the Bears used to get from Leon Johnson. Even with a return game that wasn't what it was from 2006-2007 when the Bears were No. 1 in the league in special teams, Toub's personnel was still good enough to rank eighth this past season.

"There's never been a No. 1 receiver and a No. 1 kick returner,'' Angelo said after the season. "If there's never been one, there's probably a reason for that. So I anticipated the potential of Devin's returns to fall off given the fact that we were going to escalate his play time at receiver. We wanted to escalate his play time and that's the course we chose to go down. His returns did suffer. Now, is that to say that's the absolute reason why? I don't know that. Teams got better with their coverages, being there was more of a sense of urgency. I'm sure they did a lot more studying and how to cover with Devin. There are probably other things there too.

"He wasn't the returner he was in the last couple years. We're going to look at that real hard too and make sure we continue to define what his role is because the one thing that we know about Devin and he showed it at receiver is that he's a playmaker, and when you get a playmaker, you want to make sure you get him the ball the best way you can to make as many plays as he can on Sunday."

Toub has said Manning will remain in the role of kickoff returner but the Bears could take some time away from Hester at receiver next season in order to jump-start his game on special teams. Sanders is convinced it's more a function of those around him.

"They had good [special teams personnel] the year they went to the Super Bowl,'' Sanders said. "It wasn't the same caliber. Devin has always said it wasn't him, it was the blocking in front of him and he made some great reads. That wasn't the case this season. I don't think he had the same personnel. Not to say he made all the right decisions, but he did make some good decisions. The personnel had a lot to do with it."

As far as his development as a receiver, all parties seemed pleased with the strides Hester made in the final six weeks or so of the season. He finished with 51 catches for 665 yards (13.0 average) and three touchdowns.

"I think he did great,'' said Sanders, who is still a close mentor to Hester. "Devin is the kind of kid, when he received the new contract he placed pressure on himself to perform. A lot of people think they get a new deal and they can chill. Devin is the direct opposite, `I got a new deal and I want to prove that I am worthy of this deal. I want to prove that I am one of the best in the game.' That's why he was frustrated."


Off-field troubles didn't diminish ex-Dallas Cowboy Irvin's leadership

It seems some of you didn't think Michael Irvin was a leader because of his numerous off-the-field transgressions.

You're completely missing the point.

None of the stuff he did off the field affected his ability to lead in the locker room and be an influence that helped his team win game after game after game in the '90s.

Only when his issues resulted in a five-game suspension to start the 1996 season did he harm the team on the field.

Talk to any of his teammates and they'll tell you Irvin was a dynamic leader in the locker room because no one practiced harder than he did. No one worked out harder in the off-season.

No one demanded more than Irvin did from himself.

And as I wrote last week, he had the rare ability to talk to every player in the locker room no matter that person's background. He also built relationships with his teammates that allowed him to demand they give him their best in the fourth quarter, when the game was on the line – and they did.

We know Irvin wasn't perfect off the field. None of us are. But he was as good as it got in the locker room.


RBs: First look at next year's Top 10

1. Adrian Peterson, Vikings. All four members of our staff the Fantasy Source. It's best not to argue.
2. Michael Turner, Falcons. With 1,799 yards and 17 TDs, it's hard not to give the second spot to Turner. You won't be able to get him in the fifth round this year.
3. Matt Forte, Bears. Only four running backs cleared 1,700 total yards. Forte, who caught four of his 12 TDs out of the backfield, was one of them.
4. Steven Jackson, Rams. Ask yourself this question: Is anybody not named Peterson on this list really a better back when Jackson is healthy?
5. DeAngelo Williams, Panthers. A tougher schedule will make this season's 20-TD masterpiece difficult to repeat.
6. Clinton Portis, Redskins. Portis is the only back in the league with 300-plus carries in each of the last two seasons. Will that slow him down?
7. Brandon Jacobs, Giants. "Earth" scored 15 rushing TDs, but he also missed three games. He's missed seven games over the past two seasons.
8. Maurice Jones-Drew, Jaguars. Jones-Drew has 38 TDs in three seasons and top-five potential should Fred Taylor retire.
9. Brian Westbrook, Eagles. Westbrook turns 30 in September. He's still a double-digit TD guy, but durability always is a concern.
10. LaDainian Tomlinson, Chargers. L.T. falls from a top pick to a borderline first-round pick in one year. Will you take him in this spot?


Rams Sign Berlin

Linebacker Quinton Culberson, quarterback Brock Berlin and running back Samkon Gado have been added to the team's offseason roster; all have signed one-year contracts for 2009.

Berlin, also an exclusive rights free agent, was the team's third quarterback in '08. He appeared in one game, completing one of three passes for 6 yards Nov. 23 against Chicago.


Williams has surgery to fix rotator cuff

Broncos linebacker D.J. Williams is wearing a sling after he underwent surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder last week.

Williams, the Broncos' first-round draft pick in 2004, will be out four to six weeks before he begins his normal training and full rehabilitation. Williams' best overall season may have been his first, when he played his natural weakside linebacker position and finished third in the NFL defensive player of the year balloting.

But Williams was switched to strongside linebacker in 2005 and middle linebacker in 2007, and went back to the weak side in 2008. The Broncos gave him a six-year, $32 million contract extension before the 2008 season, and after a terrific start, he was bothered by knee and shoulder problems.

Williams may have to make another position adjustment for the 2009 season as the Broncos' new coaching staff phases in a 3-4 defensive system.


Morgan plans to rejoin Saints

TAMPA, Fla. -- Linebacker Dan Morgan, who retired last year after a series of injuries, said Monday he is planning to make a comeback in 2009.

Morgan told Monday he has filed his reinstatement papers with the NFL and plans to rejoin the New Orleans Saints, who still hold his rights. Morgan has said he has talked to the Saints and they seem interested in him playing.

Morgan, 31, retired last May before ever playing a game for the Saints, who had signed him as a free agent. Morgan spent the first seven seasons of his career with the Carolina Panthers, but his time and effectiveness there were disrupted by a string of injuries. Morgan's bad luck started in his rookie season (2001) when he broke his leg.

Repeated problems with concussions and other injuries followed. Morgan had at least five reported concussions since his college days at Miami and that factored into his decision to retire. Morgan had been cleared for a return to football for 2008, but the Panthers released him and he signed with New Orleans. After spending much of the offseason program with the Saints, Morgan said he retired because of health issues and family concerns.

But Morgan said Monday he's completely healthy and is eager to make a return to the Saints. He also said his other injury problems played more of a role in his initial decision to retire than the concussions.

"I feel better than I have at any point since before my rookie season in the NFL," Morgan said by telephone from Charlotte, N.C. "I've been working out very hard and I feel great. Last year, I was down in New Orleans and I was coming off shoulder problems and my wife was pregnant with our third child and back in Charlotte. It just didn't feel like the right place or the right time and I made the decision to retire. But the year off has refreshed me and I'm very anxious to get back out there."

Although studies have suggested concussions can lead to long-term health problems, Morgan he has consulted with numerous doctors and doesn't see any problem with playing again.

"Yes, I know I've had some concussions," Morgan said. "But I think the public has kind of blown that out of proportion. They don't know my exact situation. My concussions weren't severe. I never had the bad headaches or the memory loss that they talk about in those studies. I've seen all those studies and talked about them at length with my doctors and I feel good about the situation.

"Believe me, I have three young children and if I were at all concerned about this, I wouldn't be going back on the field," he said.

Morgan is about to open two restaurants in Charlotte -- a coal-fire pizza restaurant and a diner are scheduled to open in February. Morgan has spent much of his time working to get those businesses ready. But he has also spent much of his time off working out.

Morgan said he began to get seriously involved in distance running shortly after his retirement. He even registered to run in a marathon but backed out of that and slowed down on his training once he started thinking about a return to football.

Morgan said he didn't want to lose too much weight and he's focused now on strength and flexibility training.

Saints officials couldn't be reached for comment immediately Monday, but Morgan could be a boost for a defense that struggled most of last season. The Saints initially signed Morgan, who had played his entire career at middle linebacker, to play outside linebacker. The Saints brought in middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma as their middle linebacker and he was one of the few bright spots on the defense that struggled last year.

"I've been talking with the Saints and it sounds like I'll be back with them," Morgan said. "We'll see what happens. If for some reason they don't want me, I will play elsewhere. I'm not in a position where I can dictate things right now. But I can tell you that whoever I play for will be getting one heck of a football player."

Morgan played in only three games for the Panthers in 2007 before he was sidelined by an ankle injury. He played in only one game in 2006 before taking the rest of that season off after experiencing a concussion in the preseason and in the season opener.

"Really, the concussions haven't been an issue since 2006," Morgan said. "I was cleared to play in 2007 and that wasn't really why I retired. I feel good about this. It's been three years since I have had a concussion and I've dealt with the best doctors in the world and have taken and will continue to take every precaution."


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.


Cross Chudzinski off the OC list

Cross Rob Chudzinski's name off the list of potential offensive coordinator candidates for the 49ers. Chudzinski - known around the league as "Chud" - today accepted a job as Norv Turner's tight ends/ass't head coach in San Diego. Chudzinski was the one of the first candidates to interview with Mike Singletary and Scot McCloughan for the 49ers' job. He also was a candidate for offensive coordinator of the Buccaneers, but obviously thought tight ends coach - his specialty - was his best bet.


The Hot Designs of the Kangaroo Shoe Line with Former NFL Player Jarrett Payton

Walter Payton never looked so good in his own shoes. His son, Jarrett Payton, showcases the Kangaroo shoe line dedicated to the memory of sweetness. These limited edition shoes represent the style and old school flavor of #34. Don't forget to use the classic fix for your extra flair in this edition of Athlete TV.

LB Morgan Says He’s Coming Back to Team

Linebacker Dan Morgan has informed the Saints he intends to return to the NFL after a one-year retirement, General Manager Mickey Loomis confirmed. The Saints will maintain Morgan’s rights if he is reinstated, though it’s not clear if they want to keep him under contract or if he wants to look to play elsewhere.

The Saints signed Morgan to a one-year, incentive-laden contract last March, when he was attempting to come back from an Achilles tendon injury and a series of concussions. But Morgan chose to retire two months later when the rehab wasn’t progressing as quickly as he had hoped.


Saints notebook: Jonathan Vilma's arrest

New Orleans Saints middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who was arrested for reckless driving and resisting arrest last week in Miami, plans to challenge the charges, according to agent Mitch Frankel.

Vilma, a former University of Miami player who lives in Miami in the offseason, was booked in Miami-Dade County Jail after the 3 p.m. incident and was released on $6,500 bond seven hours later, according to a police report.

Police said Vilma was seen in his Range Rover weaving through traffic. He also ran a red light and was arrested after an exchange with police and also refusing to move away from his vehicle, the report said.

"When it occurred, he didn't know why he was pulled over," said Frankel, who added that no alcohol, drugs or firearms were involved. "Clearly he's going to challenge the charges and he doesn't agree with them."

Saints spokesman Greg Bensel told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that the team was aware of the incident and also said no alcohol was involved.

Vilma, who led the Saints in tackles and was their top defensive player, could become an unrestricted free agent this spring. But the Saints say they want to re-sign him.


Panthers starting DT Lewis out until July

Panthers DT Damione Lewis will be out until training camp at the earliest after undergoing shoulder surgery Saturday.

It's been a rough off-season for the Carolina defense, with coaches leaving, Julius Peppers wanting out, and now this. Lewis, 31, played well as a starter in the first year of a new contract, but will have to show he's healthy in camp to justify his big salary next year.


Is Arizona Cardinals running back Edgerrin James on the edge of stardom once again in time for the Super Bowl?

PHOENIX — The story seems all wrong. The casting is completely out of place. Someone has tinkered with the script.

Supporting role?

Edgerrin James doesn't do supporting roles. Does he?

The guy has star quality, okay? And if the Cardinals were ever going to make a Super Bowl run, it was going to be on Edge's legs. He was going to lead the turnaround. He was going to be the homecoming hero. Wasn't he?

Why, then, has James spent most of this season in the passenger's seat?

James was never destined to be a passenger, either. He was never meant to be a spare part, or a backup singer, or a supporting actor. After 12,000 yards, after a decade in the league, that should be obvious. Shouldn't it?

As it turns out, some things are harder than linebackers, and some assignments are tougher than third and 2. Just ask James, the guy with the front-burner resume and the back-burner of a season. The guy whose career is finally moving again.

As James comes back to his home state, he is one of the more compelling players in Sunday's Super Bowl. How much he has left, and how much of it he will show Sunday, will be one of the featured story lines of the week.

It can be a tough thing, exile. One day, James was a headline, and the next, he was on the sideline. The Cardinals benched him Nov. 2 in favor of rookie Tim Hightower — a younger, more explosive back — and for the next eight games, James carried the ball only 11 times. In three games, he didn't touch it at all.

For someone else, perhaps it would have been a maddening transition. After the Cardinals denied his request for release, James settled in and waited.

"The way I grew up, this was a piece of cake," said James, who returned to the starting lineup in the playoffs. "They say, 'We're going to sit you on the bench.' If I was someone who had it easy, someone who was given everything, I would probably complain and act up.

"I wasn't raised to act up. I have three brothers in prison because of the way they reacted."

James shrugs. He stands in front of his locker after the Cardinals had beaten the Eagles in the NFC title game. A large gold lion dangles from his neck, as if it, too, is roaring again.

"I wasn't benched because I couldn't play," he said. "Everyone knows that. It was like, 'The team is going in a different direction.' I said, 'Damn, I wish I knew that earlier.' But at the same time, I signed up for this. When you sign up for something, you either deal with it or you say, 'I can't take it.' "

Either that, or you bide a little time.

During the playoffs, the Cardinals rediscovered James, who seems to have rediscovered himself. In three victories, he has run 52 times for 203 yards. No, they are not staggering numbers, but considering that James didn't run that many times for that many yards over the final 11 games of the regular season, it's not bad. It beats keeping the punter company.

"In life you have to take the good with the bad. Everything's not always going to be good. Playing football has always been easy for me," James said Friday. "I never had to face any real adversity in football because I've always tried to outrun people and do everything the right way.

"This time, even though I took that same approach, we went in a different direction. It's not something that I'm going to sit up there and show off or try to be disruptive to the team. You have to go out and take it like a man. You have to take the good with the bad. When things aren't that good, I continued to come out here and tried to help Hightower and the other running backs and do as much as I could."

Still, he allows, "this has been a weird year."

According to Ken Whisenhunt, the return of James hasn't come as a surprise. At the time, the second-year coach suggested Arizona would need James before the season was complete.

"He's a good back," Whisenhunt said of the former Miami Hurricane who signed with Arizona in 2006 after seven seasons with the Colts. "He still doesn't agree with (being benched), but that's part of what makes Edgerrin the player he is. He has a lot to prove, and I think that's shown in his play."

Perhaps. Perhaps James is trying to prove Whisenhunt wrong. And perhaps he's trying to audition for next season's team, too.

Either way, the playoffs have his attention. A few weeks ago, he gave offensive coordinator Todd Haley a list of plays he liked to run. "When I got off the bench," James said.

The question remains: How much of James' considerable skills remain? It's hard to say. There for a while, it seemed as if the Hall of Fame voters were going to have to add up his numbers. Two more 1,000-yard seasons and James was going to be in the top five rushing all time. At 30, can he still get there? And if so, with whom?

Perhaps it shouldn't surprise anyone to hear James credit his tough upbringing to getting him through the tough moments. Hasn't it always?

Somewhere along James' path, you might have heard the story. Of how tough things were in Immokalee when he grew up. About how his father kept his distance. About how uncles ended up dead or drugged or in prison. About Christmases without presents and birthdays without notice. About the food stamps. About 16-hour days James spent loading watermelons into a truck to buy his first car.

Compared to that, what harm can a bench do to a guy?

Today, James comes back to his home state. Soon, he will have at least one more game in a Cardinals uniform. The world will be watching. Maybe another team, too.

For James, that has always been the lesson. Keep running, and the end of the story may be just fine.

He said it
Cutting Edge
Edgerrin James has never been one to mince words. A few of his gems:
• "I can't go through this again. I didn't come here to block. I'm not an offensive lineman." — on his displeasure with a reduced role with the Cardinals (2008)
• "It worked out for (Martha Stewart). She got five months in jail, a slap on the wrist, and she's still getting paid. The way I look at it, I've got five months to serve, too." — on wanting out of Indianapolis after the Colts slapped a franchise tag on him (2005)
• "You know what got me through college? It was the dollar, not the diploma. It was knowing that football would let me walk into that cafeteria one day and tell 'em to keep my mom's little ol' uniform and that little ol' check." — 2000 interview
• "What happened to the other one vote? It should have been 50." — jokingly inquiring why he got only 49 of the 50 votes when he was named 1999 NFL offensive rookie of the year


Edge goes from bench to Super Bowl in "weird year"

TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Edgerrin James was a big part of many terrific teams as running back for the Indianapolis Colts.

Yet he never made it to the Super Bowl until he was with an Arizona Cardinals franchise that has no history of winning, in a season that saw him benched for the first time in his career.

"Yeah, it's weird," he said, laughing. "This has been a weird year."

James is back in his accustomed role as lead back in a rejuvenated ground game that figures large in the Cardinals' plans against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"He brings a lot to the table for us that has been seen in the improvement of our running game," Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said.

James said after Arizona's practice Friday that at the end of his seven-game exile to the bench he drew up a few of his favorite running plays and showed them to offensive coordinator Todd Haley.

"I think you play better when you actually make a suggestion and the coach listens to you," James said. "We've been running some of those plays that I've been comfortable with and we've been getting results."

James came back in the final regular-season game to rush for 100 yards in a victory over Seattle, a performance that moved him into 11th on the NFL career rushing list.

In the three playoff games, he has 203 yards in 52 carries, an average of 3.9 yards per attempt. Arizona has outgained its playoff opponents on the ground 333 yards to 232. That's an average of 111 yards per game after a league-worst 73.6 yards per game in the regular season.

James said the Cardinals are just giving him and the running game more opportunities.

"You throw the ball 50 times and you run the ball nine or 10 times you are most likely not going to have a good rushing game," he said.

He felt he didn't fit in when Arizona went to an offense that relied so heavily on throwing the ball.

"I've always played the game a certain way," James said. "This is my style of play, mixing up the pass and the run versus lining it up to throw it every time. I'm no scatback. I never tried to be."

After he gained 17 yards in seven carries and had a critical fumble in a 27-23 loss at Carolina on Oct. 26, James lost his job to rookie Tim Hightower.

James had his agent ask the Cardinals to release him. They refused to even consider it, and James did not raise a fuss personally.

"You have to go out and take it like a man," he said. "You have to take the good with the bad. When things weren't that good, I continued to come out here and tried to help Hightower and the other running backs and do as much as I could."

He joked about having more leisure time.

"I ended up reading a ton of books," he said. "I didn't look at the playbook as much."

Kurt Warner knows how it feels to lose a starting job, so he empathized with James. Warner said James "is a huge part" of Arizona's hopes against the Steelers.

"The way he runs and his ability to make something out of nothing are huge keys," Warner said. "The difference between a 0-yard gain and a 2-yard gain is huge within the course of a drive. He does that as well as anybody. I've seen him when there's nothing there, but he puts his head down and moves the pile."

Any semblance of a run game against the fierce Steelers' defense would allow Arizona to go to play-action passes that create favorable matchups with the Cardinals' standout receivers.

James' teammates are happy to have him back in the huddle.

"Just his leadership ability is outstanding," wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald said, "the way he practices, he finishes runs, picks up pass protection, never complains, always on time, durable, you can continue to go on about Edge and what he brings to this team."

James has a year left on his contract with Arizona, but he said several weeks ago that he believed he would not be back by mutual agreement with the organization. That means the Super Bowl could be his last game in a Cardinals uniform.

"I'm not even focused on anything past this game," he said Friday. "Anything beyond this game I'm not going to think about."

He said he sees the Cardinals operating now at a level he always felt they could reach since he signed as a free agent three seasons ago.

"We put it together," he said. "This team has a lot of talent. For some reason, it just wasn't coming together. Coach Whisenhunt and his staff and everybody came together and we got it rolling."


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."


Jets sign a dozen to reserve/futures deals

Jets signed RB Noah Herron, RB Marcus Mason, RB Jehuu Caulcrick, WR Paul Henry, WR Paul Raymond, WR Huey Whittaker, LB Brandon Renkart, DE Kenwin Cummings, DE Ropati Pitoitua, DL Kareem Brown, DT Brian Schafering, and OL Stanley Daniels to reserve/futures contracts. Herron, a/k/a The Bedpost Avenger, adds backfield depth, but he's more of a special teamer at this point. Mason was the preseason rushing champ in 2008 and may have a chance to repeat that meaningless feat again this year.


Clinton Portis Talks About Barack Obama

Clinton Portis of the Washington Redskins celebrated the inauguration of Barack Obama with a party. I expected Clinton to show up as one of his characters, but I guess CP decided to tone it down considering the magnitude of the event.

Clearing up the Shockey trade

I’m not sure what sparked this, but I’ve gotten a flood of e-mails in the past week or so asking me if the Giants are going to get the New Orleans Saints’ first-round pick as part of the Jeremy Shockey trade. The short answer is this:


The long answer is that it was a remote possibility that was never really a possibility, unless Saints GM Mickey Loomis is really, really dumb.
Here, for those of you who didn’t know — or those of you who forgot — are the details:

• The Saints sent the Giants a 2nd and a 5th rounder in 2009 for Shockey.
• The Saints also sent the Jets a fourth-rounder in 2008 and a conditional pick in ‘09 for LB Jonathan Vilma. That conditional pick became a third-rounder when Vilma played in 85 percent of the Saints’ defensive plays. It will become a second-rounder if Vilma is signed before the start of the free-agent signing period, on Feb. 27.
• If Vilma is re-signed by Feb. 27, obviously the Saints couldn’t send the same second-round pick to both the Giants and the Jets. Since the Jets deal was made first, the Jets would get that pick. Because of that, the Giants and Saints agreed to a contingency plan where, if the second-rounder wasn’t available, the Giants would get the Saints’ first-rounder (in 2009) instead. They’d still get the fifth-rounder, too.

Still with me?

So basically, the Giants get a second and a fifth in 2009 from New Orleans if Vilma isn’t re-signed by Feb. 27. Or they get a first and a fifth in 2009 from the Saints if they do re-sign him by then.

But here’s the thing: The Saints control whether or not they re-sign Vilma, and they’re certainly not going to do that prior to Feb. 27 and cost themselves a first-round pick. There’s nothing that says they can’t agree to a deal with Vilma now and wait until March 1 to have him sign it. And if Vilma wants to re-sign with the Saints, I assume he’d want to help them keep their first-rounder so they could get better, so he’d likely agree to that, too.

In other words, the Saints hold all the cards. And unless Loomis’ brain freezes and he forgets about the Feb. 27 deadline, there’s no way he signs Vilma before then. That would be a colossal, and costly mistake.

So, for those of you doing your mock drafts: The Giants have their own first-rounder (29th overall). The Saints will be keeping their first-rounder (14th). And the Giants will be getting the Saints’ second-round and fifth-round picks.

Shockey, by the way, had 50 catches for 483 yards and no touchdowns in 12 games this season. He also made lots of friends, including quarterback Drew Brees and the entire Saints medical staff.

Meanwhile, Kevin Boss — who essentially replaced Shockey in the Giants’ offense — caught 33 passes for 384 yards and six touchdowns and made quite a few friends, too.


Burrell viewed as Rays' best DH yet

ST. PETERSBURG -- A couple of weeks have passed since the Rays locked up free agent Pat Burrell for two years at a cost of $16 million. Now that the dust has settled, his new teammates are looking forward to adding a player who could be the best designated hitter the team has had.

"I think it's awesome," Evan Longoria said. "It proves, definitely, that we're trying to be a contender in a league where that's very tough to do, especially with the two, three, four big-market teams we have in this league. But it definitely does show a step forward for the organization as far as the money they're going to spend and what they're going to do to try to make this a winning franchise."

B.J. Upton talked of adding "a big bat for the middle of that lineup."

"He can bring us 20-plus home runs, and any time you can add that to your lineup, it's big," Upton said. "Especially when you add it to the speed we've got and the guys we've already got here, that's going to play a big part in what we do this year."

James Shields added: "It was funny, I was telling my dad a month or two ago that the hardest guy on the Phillies to face for me [during the World Series] was Burrell, because he just grinded every single at-bat. I think I threw 14 pitches an at-bat to him, it seemed like. He's not scared to take his walks -- he's a very patient hitter. He wants to get his pitch. He'll foul pitches off just to get that one pitch. I think he's going to be really good for our team."

Burrell appeared to be the best fit for the Rays' DH spot given the fact he's right-handed, he hits lefties well and he's got some power. And while performance oftentimes does not meet a level of expectation, a case can be made on paper that no previous Rays DH has matched Burrell's expected production.

Seems like just yesterday Paul Sorrento was stepping into the batter's box against the Tigers for the Rays' first Opening Day on March 31, 1998. Sorrento flew out to right field and went 1-for-5, which led to a season that saw him hit .225 with 17 home runs and 57 RBIs.

After Sorrento's less than auspicious 1998, the Rays saw the following open the season at DH: Jose Canseco (1999, 2000), Steve Cox ('01), Greg Vaughn ('02), Al Martin ('03), Aubrey Huff ('04), Josh Phelps ('05), Jonny Gomes ('06), Rocco Baldelli ('07) and Cliff Floyd ('08).

Canseco and Huff are the most prolific of the Rays' past DHs.

Canseco found his groove in the first half of the '99 season, hitting his 31st home run of the season on July 8 against the Red Sox at Tropicana Field. Unfortunately for the Rays, Canseco experienced back problems shortly thereafter and finished the season with 34 homers.

Huff had a marvelous offensive season in '04 when he hit .297 with 29 home runs and 104 RBIs. However, he primarily played third base with only 34 games at DH.

Enter the Burrell years.

In nine seasons with the Phillies, Burrell was used in the DH slot 22 times (excluding postseason starts), so being the full-time DH might take a little getting used to for him. However, his body of work suggests the Rays will get everything they were looking for when they signed him.

Given manager Joe Maddon's preference in the past, it's likely Burrell will follow a left-handed hitter in the lineup, which puts more pressure on the other team's manager when using his bullpen. Under that scenario, Carl Crawford or Carlos Pena will likely be hitting in front of Burrell. When hot, Burrell could occasionally be used in the cleanup slot, with Crawford in the third spot, or behind Pena in the fifth spot when Evan Longoria or B.J. Upton is hitting third. And there's always the chance Maddon could stack the lineup with back-to-back righties, putting Burrell behind Upton or Longoria.

These are the kinds of problems managers love to mull over in their heads.

One thing is for certain, with Burrell in the lineup, the Rays will be much stronger against left-handed pitching. Against lefties, Burrell has a career .276 batting average with a .410 on-base percentage and a .540 slugging percentage.

Burrell has averaged 31 home runs a season for the past four years, and a nice facet of joining the Rays is they don't need him to carry the team given the nature of the already solid lineup. But that won't keep him from trying.

"I'm here to help," said Burrell via conference call the day he signed with the Rays. "Anything and everything I can do to help this team win, I'm going to do. I've played every day for a number of years in Philadelphia. This is a team that's made up of a very good core of young everyday players. And if there's anything I can do to help, I'll certainly do everything I can."