Happy New Year from everyone here at proCanes.com!

James' days in desert still appear numbered

Don’t read too much into the curious late-season re-emergence of veteran RB Edgerrin James. “The situation with him has gone too far to be rectified,” said one team source, who also mentioned James’ firm belief that, at the age of 30, he could still be a dependable starting back elsewhere. What James’ revival does signal is the real possibility that the Cardinals might make the selection of a starting-caliber running back a top priority in the 2009 draft. Such is the case, with James supposedly as good as gone, J.J. Arrington’s stock as an unrestricted free agent improving and rookie Tim Hightower proving to be a solid spot performer but not an every-down type. Ken Whisenhunt’s preference continues to be for a more balanced attack with a strong run game similar to the one he coordinated in Pittsburgh, and word is the Cardinals might have a very hard time resisting a back in the mold of Bears rookie Matt Forté at the end of April.


Ravens' McGahee: I'm just playing my role

"I can't play for nobody else but me," the Ravens' Willis McGahee said this week. (Baltimore Sun photo by Karl Merton Ferron / December 20, 2008)

Ravens running back Willis McGahee insisted today that he is a "team player" and that comments he made on a national radio show this week that made him appear self-centered -- specifically when he said, "I can't play for nobody else but me" -- don't tell the full story.

And yet, when given the opportunity to explain his remarks, he could not hide his disappointment that injuries, particularly knee surgery in training camp, adversely affected his productivity this season, and he was less than exuberant when asked whether the playoffs, and the possibilities they offered, could redeem the year for him.

"My season is over," McGahee said. "[Since] Week 5, I haven't done anything at all. It's not like I'm going to get 1,000 yards, so I'm just playing my role."

Actually, since then, McGahee has had three 100-yard-plus games, including a 77-yard touchdown run that helped the Ravens beat the Dallas Cowboys on Dec. 20, but it seemed to be of little consolation.

"Still, it's not like where I want to be at," said McGahee, who had 671 yards and seven touchdowns on 170 carries in the regular season. "I'm used to competing, but with the injuries and whatnot holding me back, I look at it as a loss."

Ravens coach John Harbaugh was unfazed by McGahee's radio remarks and dismissed any potential distraction they might create.

"No, no concerns about that at all," Harbaugh said today.

McGahee said he had not been approached by the coaching staff about his comments.

"They know I haven't been like that all year, so it's nothing to take out of proportion," the running back said.

McGahee acknowledged that the practice and playing time he missed in training camp, in addition to the solid performances of converted fullback Le'Ron McClain and rookie Ray Rice at running back, made it inevitable that he would play fewer snaps. Yet, he remained steadfast that he was disappointed with his year even when reminded that the playoffs represented a second season.

"See, I'm talking about my season, I'm not talking about the team's season," McGahee said. "I'm talking about my season as an individual. That's what I'm meaning: My season is over with."

But surely a Super Bowl ring would make up for the personal disappointment, wouldn't it?

Rather than offer a yes or no, McGahee told a story from his days at the University of Miami.

"This is like when I was in college, that year [2001] I got hurt and we won the Rose Bowl" over Nebraska, McGahee said. "I was backing up [Clinton] Portis, and I got hurt. I had an MCL [injury to his knee] and I missed a couple of games, and then I came back and started in the Rose Bowl. I felt like I really didn't contribute to that season. Even though I started in the Rose Bowl and we won, Clinton Portis had [more than 100 yards]. I felt like I didn't do anything. That's just me. So that's how I look at it."

However, in the last two regular-season games, both must-wins for the Ravens, McGahee made key contributions, including the 77-yarder against the Cowboys and a 13-yard touchdown run against the Jacksonville Jaguars.

"When my number is called, I'm going to go ahead and play," McGahee said. "But if it's not, I can't do nothing about it."

And the remark about playing for himself rather than someone else was made in reference to suggested adjustments in his running style, he explained, and was not about motivation or commitment to his teammates.

"If I wasn't a team player," he said. "I would have shut it down in the middle of the season from the knee surgery and all that."

There is at least one thing that could salvage McGahee's personal view of his season -- being the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player.

"Now that's a different story," he said, brightening at the idea. "But we're not there, so we can't get that far."


Stock Watch: What's in store for Gore?

San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary announced the firing of offensive coordinator Mike Martz on Tuesday, which shouldn't be much off a surprise considering the their contrasting personalities.

From a fantasy perspective, this could mean more consistency from Frank Gore (pictured) in 2009.

I'm no football genius, but my guess is Singletary wants Gore to be like a certain RB who used to play for the Chicago Bears. We're not saying that Gore will in fact be the next Walter Payton, but Singletary likely will hire a coach with "an establish the run first" philosophy.

So what do we make of Gore heading into next season?

Gore wasn't horrible this season. He hit 1,000 yards for the third straight year, and he totaled eight TDs. Gore's production in the second half of the season, however, was disappointing.

He had just 407 yards and 2 TDs in San Francisco's final eight games after racking up 629 with 4 TDS in the first half. Gore did not score a rushing TD after Week 11.

The emergence of DeShaun Foster didn't help. Foster averaged 47.5 rushing yards in the 49ers' last four games. He could steal more carries from Gore to start next season.

As a result, Gore likely could fall from a first round pick in 2008 to a middle-of-the-second-rounder in '09. Depending on who Singletary brings in to call the plays, Gore could be the steal of the draft at that point.

From a personal standpoint, I won't be drafting Gore in the first or second round next season. I needed Gore to deliver late in the season (Weeks 12-13), and in those two games he totaled 92 rushing yards, 29 receiving yards and no TDs. You need more from a first-round stud, especially when it counts.

Your thoughts? Will you gamble on Gore in the first round again?


NLFU Wild Card Weekend Video Highlights

Check out the return of our NFL U Video Highlights. Like we did back in 2006, proCanes.com will provide our fans every week video highlights of all of our NFL U stars along with pictures from the current NFL Week. Click here to check out our Week 17 Video Highlights or click above on NFL U Video Highlights. Enjoy this week's highlights which feature Ed Reed, Ray Lewis, Antrel Rolle, Willis McGahee and more!

Baraka Atkins: A Seahawk and a soccer fan

That's Atkins in action, photo courtesy of the Seahawks. I got a few minutes with him toward the end of the season and he told me about his affinity for soccer.

Atkins, a second-year pro from Sarasota, Fla., said that soccer was the first organized sport he ever played, even before football.

"I had the biggest foot on the team, so my nickname was 'Little Foot,'" Atkins said. "I just grew a love for that game, too, early on, and I played all the way up to high school."

Even in high school, Atkins attended games and worked the game clock at times. He was a certified youth soccer official, too.

"It's an incredible game. It's amazing how they play and they're very athletic as well," Atkins said of soccer players. He was among a group of Seahawks who attended the Brazil-Canada friendly earlier this year at Qwest Field and also watched Brazil practice.

Atkins played all over the field as a soccer player. Because he was big and could run well and had a nice leg, he played halfback and ran everywhere.

If he wasn't lined up in the box to head in corner kicks, Atkins was the one doing the corner kick.

"I had a nice little curve from out of the corner," he said.

Atkins was always the biggest kid on his youth teams and eventually outgrew the sport. He's now listed at 6-foot-4, 271 pounds. And it's a fairly lean 271.

Soccer helped Atkins with his agility for other sports. He said he plans to attend Sounders FC games when the season begins.


Edge, Cards Starting Over

Edgerrin James stood in his locker, Washington Nationals hat on his head underneath his bright orange hoody, answering questions about his 100-yard rushing performance – just like he did (save the outfit) after the Cardinals’ first game of the season.

It served as a metaphor.

A lot happened with James between that first 100-yard game in San Francisco – a lot – and Sunday’s regular-season finish, a 34-21 win over Seattle. But just as James produced more than he had in weeks, so too did the Cardinals as a whole.

With a playoff game less than a week away, it’s what the Cardinals needed.

“This is when it is fun,” James said. “The regular season, it’s all good. It is cool. But this is when football starts. This is when everything is serious. One mistake could be the deciding factor.”

The Cardinals had played poorly for two games, and while coach Ken Whisenhunt said it was more important for his team to play well Sunday, it felt like a victory was necessary.

To get that win and to have it echo some of the Cards’ best successes of 2008 – Kurt Warner’s touchdown passes, the defense forcing turnovers, a semblance of a running game – should provide some of the momentum the team so desperately craved as it they awaits the Falcons.

“We finally got back to what we wanted to do,” guard Reggie Wells said.

Yet it was hard not to notice James suddenly playing a factor.

Benched for rookie Tim Hightower at midseason, James had just 11 carries in five appearances since and didn’t play a snap in three other games. His agent was vocal in the press that James would like to be released, but mostly, James kept to himself and avoided causing distractions.

Whisenhunt said multiple times when asked that, at some point, the Cardinals were going to need James.

Sunday, with the Cards’ running game generating little production of late, the Cards needed James.  

“I just think the direction we took as a team was the difference,” James said of his hiatus from the starting lineup. “I could always play. In the offseason, I don’t train to be no speed back. I try to be the guy who gets the RBI, who gets on base and keep the party going. My thing is, I hate to lose yards. I want to keep moving forward.”

It took just 14 carries for Edge to gain 100 yards. He had a 35-yard run, not only the longest for a Cardinal this season but James’ longest in three Arizona seasons.

James would probably argue the point, but he looked fresher than he ever had as a Cardinal, too. His motivation is double – not only was he desperate to play, but with the likelihood he will be released after the season, he wants to prove to the rest of the NFL he is worthy of another hefty contract.

That meshes perfectly with what the Cardinals need too.

Wide receiver Anquan Boldin sat out a second straight game with a sore shoulder, but he will play in the playoffs. Fellow receiver Larry Fitzgerald three times provided highlight catches Sunday and was spectacular in his postseason tuneup.

If Warner can stay sharp – Whisenhunt said Warner’s lone interception was a miscommunication between Warner and the receiver – the passing game should be fine. James grinding out yards would be the perfect accessory.

Whisenhunt said he wasn’t “down” on Hightower and that he didn’t yet know what the best fit is for the Cardinals going forward. Whether the coach was being coy and unwilling to tip his hand to the Falcons or whether he is truly undecided in his backfield will make for an interesting storyline this week.

“No one wants to go home,” James said. “As much as people complain about practice and the schedule you have, when it comes down to this time right here, nobody will mind staying out a little longer and doing what it takes to win. You are three games away from Tampa, and to make it to Tampa and be in the Super Bowl, that would be one of the greatest things ever.”

James doesn’t want to lose yardage when he carries the ball. He also doesn’t seem to lose sleep over his situation – which, in the end, could help the Cardinals.

“That’s the one thing you love about Edge,” Warner said. “He never goes backwards.”


Ravens talk to Reed about lateraling habit

Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said team officials spoke with safety Ed Reed Monday about his lateraling after interceptions, and he said he didn't expect that to happen again this season. Reed lateraled twice after picking off two passes against Jacksonville Sunday.

Unfortunately, we've heard this kind of talk before, and Ravens coach John Harbaugh talked to Reed about the dangers of lateraling the ball earlier this season. I don't think Reed will change. Reed is Reed, and he basically does whatever he wants to do. Earlier this season, Reed said Harbaugh needed to make an adjustment to his style, and talk to the players like men.

I think both Harbaugh and Ryan have approached Reed like a man about this subject. I'd like to remind Reed of an old saying a football coach once told me: "Boys do what they want to to do. Men do what they have to."


Hester’s return decline a trade-off

Bears general manager Jerry Angelo said he anticipated Devin Hester’s fall from grace as a kick returner after doubling up as Chicago’s No. 1 receiver.

“There has never been a No. 1 receiver and a No. 1 kick returner. If there’s never been one, there’s probably a reason for that,” Angelo said. “We wanted to escalate his playing time and that’s the course we chose to go down, and his returns did suffer.”

Angelo doesn’t regret it because Hester finished with 665 yards on 51 catches in his first full season as a receiver. No other Bears wide receiver had even 450 yards.

“The one thing we know about Devin, and he showed it at receiver, is he is a playmaker,” Angelo said. “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.”

Hester, who smashed NFL records for returns his first two seasons, was benched as Chicago’s kick returner at midseason and finished 23rd in punt returns (6.2 average). Danieal Manning replaced Hester on kickoffs and led the NFL (29.7). Manning will continue to lighten Hester’s load next year.

“His plate was full there for a while,” coach Lovie Smith said Monday of Hester. “We think we have a happy medium for him now as a punt returner and for him to continue to develop as a receiver.”


McGahee's comments on Sporting News Radio

Ravens running back Willis McGahee appeared as a guest on The Monty Show on Sporting News Radio yesterday.

During the appearance, McGahee discussed his performance and the upcoming offseason.

"I don't know what this offseason is going to bring. It's been a crazy year for me with the talks of me not being there next year," he said during the radio interview, "but regardless, I'm just going to go out there and play for me ... I can't play for nobody else but me."

Here are a few clips from McGahee's appearance:

McGahee on the upcoming offseason
McGahee says he changed for the team
McGahee on changing his routine


Pro Bowl Starter Vince Wilfork Completes TV Ads For Bob's Discount Furniture

Bob's Discount Furniture, the 2008 Furniture Retailer of the Year with stores in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island, announced that it just completed filming a series of new television commercials featuring New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork. The series of three-thirty second television commercials will start to run on television and cable stations during the week of December 29, 2008 throughout the Northeast.

The new Bob's Discount Furniture television commercials featuring Vince Wilfork, his wife Bianca, their son and daughter, were produced by the Bob's Discount Furniture in-house production team. The three television spots capture Vince and Bianca talking about their new Bob-O-Pedic mattresses, functional living room sectional and affordable children's bedroom furniture that was recently purchased at Bob's Discount Furniture.

The idea to create a series of television commercials with the Wilforks only recently developed after their visit to the Bob's Discount Furniture location in Bellingham, MA. "Bianca came into our store, selected several rooms of furniture and was so gracious about her shopping experience that she offered to help spread the word about Bob's Discount Furniture," explained Doug Robinson, manager, Bob's Discount Furniture, Bellingham, MA. "I found Vince and Bianca to be wonderful people and really down to earth."

"It wasn't overwhelming like other stores I've been in before, and the people were very helpful," said Bianca Wilfork describing her furniture shopping experience.

As a happy customer, Vince Wilfork concludes in the commercials, "We'll probably be making a few more trips out there."

Wilfork joined the New England Patriots football team in 2004 and has played in 61 games with 51 starts. In 2007, Wilfork earned his first career Pro Bowl selection and was named to the Associated Press All-Pro Second Team. He is an active member of the Mass Mentoring Partnership, a group dedicated to supporting mentoring in Massachusetts and also served as the honorary ringmaster for the Big Apple Circus in 2007 in a fundraising performance to benefit the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp.


Dolphins' Vernon Carey gets his playoff dream in fifth season

DAVIE — Offensive tackle Vernon Carey got home around 1 a.m. Monday after the Dolphins' victory over the New York Jets gave them the AFC East title.

"(My wife) was knocked out," he said at Dolphins camp Monday morning. "She just recognized I was in the bed and she was like, 'Babe! You're in the playoffs!'

"And I was like, 'Yeah, I've been waiting five years to hear that.' It was a great moment," said Carey, a Miami native and University of Miami product who was drafted in the first round by the Dolphins in 2004.

After last season's 1-15 finish, the playoffs seemed a lifetime away. Just getting through the 2007 season was difficult, cornerback Andre Goodman said.

"We got to like Week 8 you start counting down like, 'C'mon, we've still got eight more to go,' " Goodman said. "You're just trying to get through the day. I didn't feel a lot of energy, a lot of fire.

"When it got close to Week 16, we're just saying, 'Can we get one?' so we don't go down in history as far as 0-16. And once we got that one, it was a relief. It was almost over."

That win came against the Baltimore Ravens, the Dolphins' opponent in Sunday's first-round playoff game. That lone victory in 2007 didn't make up for the misery of the season, Carey said.

"It was the worst feeling of your life," said Carey, who is scheduled to be a free agent at the end of the season. "It makes you think twice about what you're doing. Like, is this really worth it? It just took everything out of you.

"To come back this year and do what we're doing now, it recharges you and it makes you cry because you know where you came from."
Goodman said he is looking forward to a big crowd for Sunday's game, which was declared a sellout Monday, the same day that tickets went on sale.

"To be here in the playoffs with a chance to win a playoff game at home, I want to see a packed house," said Goodman, a third-year Dolphin. "I haven't seen that stadium packed since I've been here. I'm looking forward to it. I'm excited."


Boivin: James, Cards now need each other

The Cardinals have put their own spin on a box-office smash. Call it The Curious Case of Edgerrin James, a triumphant tale about a man who clearly is aging backward.

Ken Whisenhunt's comments Monday that James looked "fast" and "fresh" against Seattle signaled another interesting turn in the Cardinals' running-game saga. Although the coach was non-committal, James is expected to land the role of lead back in Saturday's playoff game against Atlanta, a fascinating twist considering earlier implications that the back's 30-year-old legs couldn't cut it anymore.

Wrong. James is back, and although this awkward reconciliation followed a bizarre series of events, the truth is it will benefit both sides greatly.
James looked strong against Seattle, and if the Cardinals hope to succeed against the Falcons, they need a running game that can eat up the clock and help a pass attack be productive. Let's be honest. This playoff game is like a highly publicized combine for James. He wants to do his best for the Cardinals, but if it also means showcasing his skills for other teams, so be it.

Both sides should embrace the circumstances. The Cardinals are a team that catches few breaks. If this unlikely series of events led to this positive outcome, celebrate it.

Yes, it has been head-scratching.

"It's like we said a long time ago," Whisenhunt said. "If we have Edgerrin, we can count on him later in the year."

What does that mean? That he's good enough now but wasn't good enough four weeks ago?

Whisenhunt also said it's nice to have a player "looking like he's in good shape for the playoffs."

The coach almost sounds like he was saving James for the postseason.

The truth is a lot more complicated, a convergence of events that led to this improbable outcome. Whisenhunt liked what he saw from Tim Hightower at a time when he didn't like what he saw from James, including a missed practice and words that challenged the coach's decision-making.

His running style was also less in demand when the Cardinals shifted to a pass-heavy attack. Throw in some big-play performances by Hightower and the need by Whisenhunt to exert some disciplinary muscle.

In recent weeks, however, Hightower hasn't done enough to hang onto the role of featured back. It doesn't mean he can't be one; it just means James is more deserving right now.

Whisenhunt said the Cardinals opted to give James the bulk of the carries against Seattle "to see where he was."

Clearly, he's in a good place.

"Edge is really underrated, I think, when it comes to how hard he runs and how he continually goes forward," Cardinals guard Reggie Wells said.
He proved that Sunday with 100 yards on 14 carries against Seattle.

He's 11th on the NFL's all-time career rushing list and a pair of 100-yard games from eighth.

He's 30, not a geriatric.

As twisted as the path to this reunion was, it's a great Xs and Os decision for a team everyone is writing off, including most oddsmakers who have the Cardinals as underdogs for this home game.

The opportunity for a playoff victory appears to have infused both player and coach with the ability to live in the moment.

"Edge is one of the best teammates any of us has been around," Wells said. "Obviously, maybe things didn't work out the way he envisioned them this year, but he's never changed, never been a different guy on the field or in the locker room with us."

Wells spoke Monday of how James walked around the locker room after the team clinched the NFC West title and asked teammates to sign his hat.

"He wants to win, and he's still very much into this team and its success," he said.

Good to know, because the Cardinals will need him more than ever Saturday.


Postgame notebook: Reed does it again

At some point, after seeing him make big play after big play, you run out of things to say about Ed Reed.

There aren't enough adjectives to describe the safety's talent and his ability to change a game at any time. Simply put -- the guy just makes plays.
He made a couple big ones Sunday against the Jaguars. Reed brought in two interceptions, his eighth and ninth of the season, tops in the NFL. The first pick set up a Le'Ron McClain touchdown that vaulted Baltimore to a 24-7 halftime lead.

It was Reed's fourth multiple-INT game of the season and the eighth of his career. Back when he won the league's Defensive Player of the Year award in 2004, Reed had nine picks and two touchdowns. This season, the five-time Pro Bowler has nine picks and two touchdowns.

Could some more hardware be on the way? Maybe.

But please, someone teach the man to hang onto the ball after he comes down with an INT.


Lewis expects to be back in two weeks

Panthers starting DTs Maake Kemoeatu (ankle) and Damione Lewis (shoulder) will benefit from the Panthers' first round bye and should be near full health in two weeks.

Both missed the team's regular season finale against the Saints. Kemoeatu's 6'5/350-pound frame will be crucial to the Panthers' playoff success. They'll face either the Vikings or the Eagles in the second round.


Ex-Hurricanes Gore, Portis have mutual respect

SANTA CLARA – The question seemed like a ridiculously easy one for Clinton Portis: Which former University of Miami tailback is the best NFL rusher?

Like most ex-Hurricanes, Portis doesn't lack self-esteem, and he has a well-developed sense of humor. The question was a softball, and the Redskins running back would oblige by hitting it out of the park. The next words out of his mouth would be "Clinton Portis."

Instead, his smile disappeared and he grew serious.

"Honestly, I always thought Frank was the best one out of all of us, and I'm big on myself," Portis told the NFL Network in June.

When you're a key player in a high-profile college program, you don't always root for your understudy to succeed. But to hear Portis and Frank Gore tell it, there wasn't a speck of jealousy between them at Miami.

Gore said Portis, who was a junior when Gore was a freshman, treated him like a younger brother, teaching him the playbook and letting Gore hold his car – an old, gold Toyota Camry – whenever Portis was away. In return, Gore's mother, Liz, threw Portis the mother of all draft parties at her home in Coconut Grove, Fla., when Portis left Miami for the Denver Broncos in April 2002.

Portis said he was impressed with Gore even before the latter set foot on campus. While Gore was in high school, Portis and his Miami teammates sat in the stands as Gore's school, Coral Gables High, took on the school of future Miami wide receiver Sinorice Moss.

"They ran a four-receiver, run-and-shoot set and just gave (Gore) draws," Portis recalled. "He single-handedly ran through Carol City (High School), and they were the top team. That wowed me."

Far from begrudging him playing time, Portis said he would remove himself in the second half of games to give Gore extra carries. Before Miami was to play Nebraska in the 2002 Rose Bowl, Portis turned to his roommate.

"He said, 'I'm going to give you the rock,' " Gore said. " 'This is my last game. Now you've got to hold it down for me.' I was excited about that. Now I get the chance to be the man."

Which isn't to say the former Hurricane tailbacks don't have a brotherly rivalry.

The two have gone head to head only once, in 2005 when Gore was a backup to Kevan Barlow. Late in that game, Gore broke a 72-yard touchdown run, and he finished with 89 rushing yards.

Portis, however, was 12 yards better, and he scored three touchdowns in a 52-17 Redskins rout.

Gore also knows Portis has the edge over him this season in rushing yards, 1,407 to 978.

"We're so competitive we always want to outrush each other," Gore said. "He got me this year, but you know, I'm going to try and come back this Sunday and outperform him. We've got to win. If I do that and win, hey, we're good. Happy New Year to me."


Gore gets his grand

He got his 1,000 yards, gimpy ankle and all.

Frank Gore went into Sunday's season-ender against Washington needing 22 rushing yards to attain 1,000 for the season and become the first 49er to rush for 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.

Gore, who had missed the previous two games with a sprained ankle, finished with 11 carries for 58 yards to end the season with 1,036. Joe Perry (1953-54), Roger Craig (1988-89), Garrison Hearst (1997-98) and Charlie Garner (1999-2000) all rushed for at least 1,000 yards for two straight seasons.

"It's great to be the first running back in this team's history to do it, especially with all the great players who have been here," Gore said. "I'm very happy. Everyone wanted me to do it today. I have a record in this great franchise's history, and that's a great thing."

Coach Mike Singletary was mindful of Gore's ankle and limited his playing time. DeShaun Foster played well in relief of Gore with nine carries for 44 yards and a 1-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.


Houston Texans receiver is a major league giver

He’s a big jolly man with a bright red suit and a sleigh full of loot.

Santa Claus, you might be surprised to learn, lives in Houston.

In spending more than $16,000 for 12 disadvantaged children in his adopted hometown, Andre Johnson, the Houston Texans’ outstanding receiver, discovered that it’s as good to give as it is to receive.

"I don’t feel like Santa Claus, but I get a joy out of seeing those kids happy," Johnson said in a telephone interview. "You really see how much it means to them afterward.

"They come up and give you hugs, and a lot of them just can’t believe that they get a chance to go into the store and get what they want. A lot of those kids have been through so much that that day is probably a day they will never, ever forget."

Johnson is the best receiver you’ve never heard from.

He doesn’t have a touchdown dance or a radio show. He didn’t complain about coach Gary Kubiak or quarterback Matt Schaub after catching only two passes for 19 yards in Sunday’s 27-16 loss to the Oakland Raiders.

He isn’t a self-promoter.

Yet, Johnson leads the NFL with 1,427 receiving yards and is second in receptions with 105.

"And still to be absolutely without trouble," Texans owner Bob McNair said. "He’s just the model player. Everything you look at with him, it’s hard to find any area where you’d say, 'Gee, I’d like for him to do better in this area.’ He’s terrific."

It was almost two years ago, after Johnson signed an eight-year, $60 million extension, that he became Houston’s Santa Claus.

Stephanie Belton, a community development consultant, and Johnson’s uncle, Andre Melton, came up with A.J.’s Shopping Spree.

They joined forces with Child Protective Services, charging case workers with finding 12 of the "neediest of needy" children out of more than 11,000 in the CPS system in the Houston area.

The children, ages 8-16, were given 80 seconds — Johnson’s jersey number — to load a basket at a Toys "R" Us. With "game plans" in hand, the kids left with RipStik, drum sets, keyboards, bicycles, Ipods and Barbies as well as an electronic game system and a game of their choice, which they picked out beforehand.

"A lot of these children have never even been asked, 'What do you want for Christmas,’ let alone get anything they want," said Estella Olguin, a spokeswoman for CPS in Houston. "... They were 12 very lucky children, and I think they know how fortunate they are."

After the shopping spree, the kids were asked seven questions about Johnson: Where did he play college football? What is his hometown? Three made it to the final question: Why does Johnson wear No. 80?

Trey Washington, 11, raised his hand. He had seen a YouTube video of Jerry Rice, whose last NFL season was 2004, and noticed Rice wore No. 80.

Washington guessed Rice was the reason Johnson picked No. 80.

Washington was right, allowing him to load another $1,500 worth of toys for himself and his two younger sisters. Washington, a running back on his sixth-grade football team in Deer Park, called it his "best day ever."

"We’re now the biggest Andre Johnson fans you’d ever meet," said Tressia Finch, Washington’s grandmother. "He’s definitely my grandson’s Santa Claus this year. He is our Santa Claus, too, because my grandson also got gifts for his sisters."

Last week, Johnson was on his way to the Houston Galleria to do his personal Christmas shopping. Asked if he would spend more on his family — his mom, his brother, his girlfriend, his godson and his grandmother — than on the 12 kids he hadn’t met until last week, Johnson laughed.

"I seriously doubt it," he said.

Johnson put $12,000 on his credit card last Christmas, the first year of A.J.’s Shopping Spree. The bill was $4,000 more this year. It was the Christmas that Johnson never had as a kid.

"You never got everything you wanted," said Johnson, whose favorite gift as a kid was a Dan Marino replica uniform. "You had to get what your mom could afford. Some things you wanted, you never, ever got. But you couldn’t say Christmas was bad, because you did get something for Christmas.

"It just depended if family members had the money to get you what you wanted, or if they didn’t."

In Houston, Santa Claus wears cleats with his suit of red.


Edge reemerges with 57th career 100-yard game

As a group of reporters surrounded Edgerrin James in the Cardinals' locker room Sunday, fullback Terrelle Smith walked by with a grin on his face.

"Who is that over there?" he said.

It was a valid question.

Before Sunday's 31-21 victory over the Seattle Seahawks, James had become the invisible man. He had just 11 rushing attempts in the Cardinals' previous eight games, and he didn't carry the ball a single time in three of those games.

It seemed a foregone conclusion that James would be little more than a cheerleader as the Cardinals wrapped up their season.

But that all changed Sunday. Given a chance by coach Ken Whisenhunt, James responded with 100 yards on 14 carries and, in the process, likely reclaimed the starting job he had lost to rookie Tim Hightower.

Whisenhunt wouldn't confirm James' reemergence as the starter, but it seems inevitable. Hightower had just three carries for three yards, while James ran with power and speed, breaking off a 35-yard run in the fourth quarter that was the longest gain by a Cardinal this season and the longest of his Cardinals career.

Whisenhunt said he went with James because he thought his experience in late-season and playoff games would be helpful.

"We said early in the season we were going to need him at some point," Whisenhunt said. "Give him credit, he worked and he did a good job today."

One Cardinal who was happy to see James was quarterback Kurt Warner.

"He's seeing things, getting us an energy in the running game that we haven't had in a while," Warner said. "I think he is going to pay some big dividends for us down the road."

James, who was told early in the week by running backs coach Maurice Carthon that he would start, said he wasn't out to show anyone inside or outside the organization that he still had it. He just wanted to do what he's done throughout his 10-year career.

"I train to be somebody who hits the RBI and keeps people on base," he said. " ... I hate to lose yards. I just want to keep moving forward. At the end of the day, you're going to have big days."

Other than requesting a trade, James had made little noise since Hightower replaced him in the starting lineup against St. Louis on Nov. 2.

"My family has gotten in trouble because they've always reacted," he said. " ... I think it would have been embarrassing to my mama to if I acted up and behaved badly. That is what I didn't want to do - become a distraction."

James not only re-established himself as Arizona's primary back, he moved past Thurman Thomas and Franco Harris into 11th place among all-time rushers.

"That's big for me," said James, who also had his 57th career 100-yard game. "The first day I stepped onto the football field, I wanted to be one of the best backs to play this game."


Davenport Contributes

Najeh Davenport, a member of the Colts these days, had 80 total yards, and midseason darling Donnie Avery had 40 yards and a score while sitting on waiver wires.


Rocky McIntosh says knees not the issue

Redskins WLB Rocky McIntosh says his reduced snaps late in the 2008 were not the result of his chronic knee problems.
"It has nothing to do with the knees, it's just guys are getting tired and everybody rotates," he said. McIntosh played 16 games, but didn't improve on his 2007 numbers. He'll be an injury risk as long as he's in the NFL.


Buchanon says he’d like to stay in Tampa

Contract-year CB Phillip Buchanon says he's more inclined to re-sign with the Bucs after they named Raheem Morris their defensive coordinator in 2009.


Vilma, Saints happy with marriage

METAIRIE, La. ― Jonathan Vilma didn’t beg his Saints’ coaches to put him in for practice during August two-a-days in Jackson, Miss.

But he didn’t exactly make it easy for them to willingly submit to any requests he might have had in regard to getting him into drills after coming off of knee surgery that ended his 2007 early.

“My philosophy is always go hard and whatever happens after, you’ll figure it out from there,” Vilma said. “The coaches had to be opposite and they were the opposite way with me, easing me along.

“For me, whenever I got a chance to go as hard as I could, I’d go. If they backed me off, they backed me off.”

He added, “Now I’m going a full 100 percent. It’s not an issue."

It appears a combination of methods has worked best for both Vilma and the Saints, who sent the Jets a conditional fourth-round pick that will, according to NFL.com, become a third-round pick in the 2009 draft.

“…He’s also viewed by our players as one of the leaders on defense,” Saints Head Coach Sean Payton said.

The free-agent pickup has been superb in his first season with New Orleans, leading the team in tackles (119) and fumble recoveries (2) with two games to go in the Saints’ season.

Anybody who questioned if the former University of Miami and New York Jets standout would be able to play top-flight football after the surgery got their answer time and again throughout the season.

“I definitely like where I’m at,” Vilma said. “I like the way I’m playing. I see a progression in myself as the weeks have gone on. I’m excited about that and fortunately, my knee hasn’t been an issue.”

What has helped – besides surgery and the regular rehabilitation routine – is a move back to a 4-3 defense instead of the 3-4 that he was playing in with the Jets.

It’s not just New Orleans coaches and Saints fans who have noticed what Vilma is doing this season.

“When he was coming out, we really did our due diligence in Jacksonville of looking at Jonathan,” current Atlanta Head Coach Mike Smith, the former Jacksonville defensive coordinator. “He’s very intelligent. I think he has a great understanding of defensive football and I think he’s a great addition to the defense here at the Saints. I think he’s one of the top, if not the top middle linebacker in the NFC.”

Vilma is a 6-foot-1, 230-pound former first-round selection out of Miami who earned a Pro Bowl selection while with the Jets. He was the rookie of the year in 2004, finishing with 118 tackles, two sacks and three interceptions, among other stats.

His versatility is one of the things that stands out on video, Chicago Bears Head Coach Lovie Smith said.

“If you look at what linebackers have to do nowadays, guarding backs like Matt Forte, like Reggie Bush, like (Pierre) Thomas, you have to have athletic ability to do that,” Smith said. “And you have to be able to take on big linemen. You have to have strength, too, and he has both of those.”

And while New Orleans hasn’t re-signed him to a long-term contract, that could be coming. Vilma appears to have a fondness for the city and the team.

“I’m happy. No regrets,” Vilma said. “I still keep in touch with guys from New York. No hard feelings there. But I’m happy where I’m at.”


Rough Season

For running back Willis McGahee, his 77-yard touchdown jaunt in the fourth quarter only eased some of the frustrations derived from what's on pace to be a career-worst season.

Entering the final game of the regular season, McGahee has rushed for just 647 yards and six touchdowns after gaining 1,207 a year ago. However, McGahee hasn't complained about a drastically reduced workload and has regularly heaped blame onto himself.

"Willis has handled the whole season pretty well," Harbaugh said. "He's been disappointed because things haven't worked out, I'm sure, the way he planned going in as far as number of carries and yards and all those measurable things. To me, the real measurable thing is the character that he's expressed through this whole deal.

"He's continued to work at it. He's been at every practice. He's one of the better students of the game we have. He just kept plugging, and then he gets a chance in the game."