The hits kept coming, steadily and sadistically, but Edgerrin
James just bit his lip and absorbed the blows. All last season,
his first year back from reconstructive knee surgery, the
Indianapolis Colts' two-time Pro Bowl halfback felt like a target
moving at half speed. Finally, in the midst of Indy's humiliating
wild-card playoff loss to the New York Jets, James resolved to
get even in 2003. That's it, James decided after one particularly
vicious gang tackle, glaring up at his opponents. Kick me when
I'm down, and enjoy it now, because when I get back, I'm going to
make all y'all pay. ¬∂ The numbers James produced in the Colts'
33-7 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday suggest that
he's fulfilling that prophesy, but the statistics alone don't do
the story justice. For instance, while we can report that James
carried 30 times for 120 yards and a touchdown, it is much
tougher to quantify the way that he and his teammates,
often labeled a finesse team, stood up to their physical AFC
South rivals. If you really want to break down James's revival,
there are other numbers to consider: $50,000, the money he spent
in the off-season to turn a former lounge in his hometown of
Immokalee, Fla., into his personal gym; 4 a.m., the hour at which
he would typically arrive in Immokalee after having driven some
100 miles across the Everglades from Miami; and "20 bucks and
breakfast," what James says he paid his "workout partners"--many
of them crackheads hanging out near his gym whom he recruited
each day--after the grueling, early-morning sessions that
restored his body to peak condition. "I know it doesn't sound
like much," James says jokingly, "but for crackheads, that's two
hits and a solid meal."
The way the night owl James saw it, to regain the form that
enabled him to lead the NFL in rushing in each of his first two
seasons, 1999 and 2000, it was imperative that he work out on his
own schedule, peculiar as it might have seemed. So James created
Alligator Alley's answer to a 24-hour fitness center. As for his
spotters and running partners, he didn't have a lot of options.
"At that time of night the crackheads are the only ones awake,"
James says. "I'd roll down Second Street, find a dude stumbling
around and say, 'Yo, come rack my weights.' Other times I'd pay
one to run with me." Talk about speed training.
On Sunday in the RCA Dome, James had an afternoon that was more
bash than flash. With his longest gain only 19 yards, he did most
of his running inside, shoving through crowds of Tennessee
defenders. In similar circumstances last season, James, still
struggling with knee pain and plagued by assorted other ailments
at the time (a pair of high-ankle sprains, a right-hamstring pull
and cracked rib cartilage), often looked like a crash-test dummy.
This time he and the Colts served notice to the Titans that they
won't be pushed around anymore.
"When Edgerrin is hitting it downhill like that, we're a totally
different team," says Indy quarterback Peyton Manning, whose
low-key 173 passing yards included a resplendent, 35-yard
touchdown grab by Pro Bowl wideout Marvin Harrison that gave the
Colts a 17-7 lead shortly before halftime. "Last year teams
weren't respecting the run, and that allowed defensive ends to
pin back their ears and linebackers to blow off the play action.
This year we'll make them respect the run."
You can bet the Titans have far more respect for the Colts now
than they did going into Sunday's game. Fresh on the minds of
Tennessee's players were last season's two victories over Indy,
which proved to be the difference in the division race won by the
Titans. Some veterans also remembered the 1999 divisional playoff
meeting between the two clubs, a 19-16 Tennessee victory en route
to an appearance in Super Bowl XXXIV. The final analysis in all
three games was that Indy had crumbled under an opponent's
Coming off a fierce 25-20 victory over the Oakland Raiders in the
season opener, the Titans planned to lay the smack down in
'Naptown. "We're going to try and put a foot in their ass and
whack 'em around, no doubt," Tennessee linebacker Keith Bulluck
said last Friday night.
But on a weekend in which Nashville mourned the passing of the
Man in Black--country legend Johnny Cash--the Men in Pantone Blue
failed to walk the line. "They didn't bring it like they normally
do, for whatever reason," Colts fullback Detron Smith said. "We
wanted to outplay them, outhit them, outsmart them and outhustle
them, and in this game we did." Five Titans went down with
injuries, including quarterback Steve McNair, who missed two
series with a dislocated right ring finger. Second-year Indy
coach Tony Dungy's improving defense, which held the Cleveland
Browns without a touchdown in the Colts' season-opening 9-6
victory, had five sacks and two takeaways against Tennessee,
including cornerback Nick Harper's 75-yard interception return
for a touchdown with 22 seconds remaining.
It was James, however, who set the tone: He carried the ball on
eight of Indy's first 11 plays, including a fourth-and-one on
which the 6-foot, 214-pounder ducked his head and bulled through
Bulluck and safety Lance Schulters for two yards. He looked
equally strong on the two-yard touchdown run with 6:18 left in
the second quarter that gave the Colts a 10-7 lead.
In short, James, 25, once again appeared to be the agile,
powerful back who tormented defenders until the sixth game of his
third season when, during a victory over the Kansas City Chiefs,
he awkwardly planted his left foot on the Arrowhead Stadium grass
and tore his anterior cruciate ligament. He considered it a freak
injury and was intent on returning with a bang in 2002, ignoring
the dictum that it's not until the second year after major knee
surgery that a back regains his form. "I tried to rush things,"
he admits. "My first two years, when I'd run, it was duck, dodge
and laugh. But last year people had a chance to get some clean
shots on me, and they unloaded. Once I hurt my ankles, I couldn't
push off on short yardage, and I had no endurance, which used to
be my strength."
Nevertheless, James, who missed two games in 2002, rushed for 989
yards. He says he became a more savvy runner, explaining, "The
game slowed down for me, which was great, because I needed every
edge I could get. Before, I was just running on instinct."
He has gained perspective, too. Earlier in his career, when the
yards came easily and he thought he was bulletproof, James spoke
of quitting after six seasons and turning his life into an
endless vacation. Now, humbled by the injury and heartened by the
presence of Dungy, who runs a far more player-friendly operation
than predecessor Jim Mora, James says he can envision playing "12
years, maybe 15. All the stuff away from football gets boring
after a while; you realize there ain't s--- to do."
During the summer, in his ongoing quest for amusement, James
spent three weeks as the tour guide and de facto guardian for
more than a dozen teenage boys from Immokalee, loading them into
three vehicles and taking them to Atlanta and Indianapolis.
During training camp he rented a bus and escorted 50 Indy-area
youths on a two-day trip to Terre Haute, Ind., the Colts' summer
home. On Sunday two of James's three daughters, Quisha, 6, and
Eyahna, 2, were at the RCA Dome to see his big game. Someday the
girls might appreciate that they saw their dad surpass 5,000
career rushing yards and register his 27th career 100-yard game
in 54 regular-season tries.
Frustrated by his lack of action in the previous week's victory
at Cleveland, in which he carried 15 times for 67 yards and
caught five passes for 29 more, James forced the issue on Sunday.
With the Colts leaning heavily on their no-huddle attack, James
repeatedly lobbied Manning to audible to specific runs. On one
such play early in the fourth quarter, on second-and-nine from
the Titans' 39, James sprinted around left end and weaved his way
through the Tennessee defense for 23 yards. While a holding
penalty reduced the gain to 19 yards, a truer measure of the
run's impact came as James returned to the huddle.
"Yo, Edge," Bulluck barked, "I'm going to have to let everyone
know you're back."
"Hey, trust me," James replied, flashing his gold-toothed smile,
"it's been a long time coming."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY AL TIELEMANS WINNING EDGE Against the Titans, James showed the power and agility that made him a two-time NFL rushing champ.
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER TOUGH GOING Wideout Derrick Mason and the Titans found yards hard to come by against the physical Colts defense.
"We wanted to outplay them, OUTHIT THEM, outsmart them and
outhustle them," said Smith, "and in this game we did."
Michael Silver's Open Mike, every Thursday at si.com.