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.