Standing in frontof a luxurious edifice on a rainy desert night, Edgerrin James, a modern-dayGene Kelly with dreadlocks and gold-capped teeth, refused to let the downpourdampen his enthusiasm. "Welcome to my world," James said last Fridayjust before midnight, gesturing toward the lobby of the Phoenix Ritz-Carlton,the glimmering, 11-story hotel he currently calls home. "I love it here inthe desert, man. I've got everything I've been looking for as a footballplayer--money, a cool coach, practices that don't kill you, two greatreceivers--and we're going to be good. This is a pretty sweet place to be rightnow." A little more than 13 hours later James, the Arizona Cardinals' newstarting halfback, locker room linchpin, wardrobe consultant, interiordecorator and pool shark, was marveling at the majesty of another impressivestructure--Cardinals Stadium, the just-completed, $455 million flying-saucerreplica that sits amid farmland 15 miles northwest of downtown Phoenix. Thefinal introduction before the team's preseason opener against the defendingchampion Pittsburgh Steelers last Saturday, James inspired a prolonged roarfrom the 63,400 fans, some of whose goose bumps could not be blamed on thestate-of-the-art air-conditioning system. Eighteen years after the Cardinalsarrived from St. Louis, pro football has finally become cool in the Valley ofthe Sun.
"Edgerrin haschanged the way we do things," Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner said afterArizona's 21--13 victory over the Steelers. "He's so excited, so focused onwinning, and everyone around him feeds off that. We know the whole culture ofan organization doesn't change overnight, but there's a positive vibe here thatcontinues to build. Guys don't feel that the organization is happy with thestatus quo, and Edgerrin's presence is a constant reminder that we're creatingan atmosphere that's conducive to winning."
Granted, thatprocess hasn't yet yielded any meaningful victories--the Cardinals are comingoff a 5--11 season and have finished above .500 just once while based inArizona. James, however, has had plenty of success since last March, when theprize of the 2006 free agent class signed a four-year, $30 million deal withArizona after seven stellar seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. Saturday was atypically fruitful afternoon for the Edge. After playing only the openingseries, carrying twice for minus-two yards as Warner keyed Arizona's 56-yardtouchdown drive, James found a novel way to spice up the monotony of preseasonfootball. Making small wagers with teammates on everything from how many yardsfifth-string halfback Diamond Ferri would gain to whether a player with an odd-or even-numbered jersey would recover the Steelers' last-gasp onside kick,James incrementally increased his net worth.
The NFL's answerto Jeanette (the Black Widow) Lee, James has collected considerably more greenfrom other Cardinals after repeatedly schooling them at a local pool hall, buthe is paying dividends for his teammates. "EJ is constantly talking aboutwinning and being the best, and we feed off that," says veteran fullbackFemi Ayanbadejo. "I don't care how good he is on the field; his greatestvalue, to us, is the enthusiasm and energy he exudes."
James is alsoimproving the quality of life in an organization long known for its cheapnessand substandard amenities. Mounted in the empty locker next to James's at theteam's training facility in Tempe is a 20-inch plasma TV that the halfbackpersuaded vice president and general counsel Michael Bidwill to purchase."I barely even watch TV, man," James says. "But the locker roomshould be a place where guys want to hang out." The flat-screen is just oneof many elements of an Extreme Team Makeover spearheaded by the halfback thatinclude an iPod port and speaker set, which allow him to serve as a locker-roomdeejay; improved Wi-Fi access; and a switch to black cleats. "He came inand put his foot down, and now he's running the show down there," saysEagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who makes his off-season home in Arizona, ofhis friend.
"What's goingon here is bigger than a plasma TV," says Warner, who completed nine of 13passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns against the Steelers, evoking memoriesof his two MVP seasons with the St. Louis Rams. "But that TV is a symbol ofthe walls that have been broken down."
Berlin this isn't,however. These are still Bill Bidwill's Cardinals, and the team is a reported$12 million under the salary cap. Saturday's game took place without No. 10overall selection Matt Leinart; the former USC star quarterback was the lastremaining unsigned draft pick. (On Monday night there were reports that Leinartand the Cardinals had agreed in principle on a deal.)
Michael Bidwill,the 41-year-old former federal prosecutor who has supplanted his father as theteam's top decision-maker, is driven by a desire to end the ridicule oftenassociated with his family name. He believes that a trio of strong talentevaluators (coach Dennis Green, vice president of football operations RodGraves and college scouting director Steve Keim) and the revenue streamgenerated by the new stadium can spur the franchise to once unimaginableheights. "We've got a lot of talented players and a great coach,"Bidwill says. "Now we want results."
In other words,it's time. Green won just 11 games in his first two seasons in Arizona, after alargely successful 10-year run with the Minnesota Vikings. If he doesn't winthis year, he'll be as obsolete as those aluminum benches that Cardinals fansonce endured on scorching-hot Sundays at Sun Devil Stadium.
Though they lackdepth at many positions, the Cardinals look like playoff contenders. Last yearWarner teamed with wideouts Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald to form theNFL's top passing attack. This year's Cardinals should be far more balancedthanks to James, who is coming off his fourth season with at least 1,500rushing yards, and an improved set of blockers led by new offensive line coachSteve Loney. With an elite pass rusher in defensive end Bertrand Berry, adynamic playmaker in strong safety Adrian Wilson and perhaps the league's topplacekicker in Neil Rackers, the Cardinals are poised to make their stadiumshake from its removable grass field to its retractable roof.
On Saturday, forthe first time in forever, the Cardinals had a full house in which the majorityof fans weren't rooting against them. Amped up in jerseys honoring currentstars James, Warner and Boldin, and the late Pat Tillman, born-again redbirdfans jeered the Steelers--chanting "Helmet, helmet" at quarterback BenRoethlisberger during pregame warmups (a reference to his scary motorcycleaccident two months ago)--and cheered as if the Cardinals' victory counted inthe standings.
When it was over,James emerged from the climate-controlled stadium and strolled through thesweltering players' parking lot as if he owned the place. Suffice to say thatthe day's events had not overwhelmed him. "It was cool for the guys who'vebeen here a while," he said, "but for me, it's nothing new. Sold-outdome, loud crowd--that's what I'm used to. Now we need to get used towinning." Don't bet against him.
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"I don't care how good [James] is on thefield," says Ayanbadejo. "His greatest value is the ENTHUSIASM ANDENERGY he exudes."
Photograph by Gene Lower/Slingshot
THE BIGBIRD -¬†James has quickly become the leader on a team that includes atwo-time MVP, Warner (13).
NICK DOAN/ICON SMI
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (2)
CREATURECOMFORTS - The brand-new Cardinals Stadium gives the team's long-suffering fanssomething to chirp about.