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.