AFTER HELPING theCardinals to a 30--24 NFC wild-card victory over the favored Falcons lastSaturday, running back Edgerrin James walked slowly to his car in a dimly litlot behind University of Phoenix Stadium. He wore baggy blue jeans and anoversized hooded sweatshirt that covered his telltale hair twists. His head wasdown, his face partially obscured, but that didn't prevent fans from noticinghim. They stopped James every few steps, asking for autographs on tradingcards, hats, footballs, even a red Cards jersey still on the back of the manwho owned it. James obliged each request.
The fans'appreciation was understandable. The hard-running 10-year vet was coming off a16-carry, 73-yard performance that was vital to Arizona's first playoff winsince the 1998 season. But the autograph seekers may well have had anothermotive: obtaining a keepsake from what was probably James's final game inArizona as a Cardinal.
Despite havingone year left on a contract that would pay him $5 million in '09, James hassaid he doesn't expect to return. He wants to run more; the Cards are committedto throwing. Arizona ranked last in the NFL in rushing attempts with 21.2 pergame (and second-to-last in yards per carry, at 3.5) but had threewideouts—Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston—surpass 1,000yards. Behind QB Kurt Warner, the Cards were second in the NFL in passattempts, with 39.4 per game.
A resolution mustwait until season's end, but in the meantime James, 30, is providing one of thepostseason's most intriguing story lines. Benched after seven games for speedyrookie Tim Hightower, James was reinserted into the lineup for the seasonfinale and remained there against Atlanta. His 173 rushing yards over the pasttwo games are seven more than he had in his previous 12 combined. Now he couldbe the key to the Cardinals' chances this Saturday at Carolina, because thePanthers defense (20th in the league against the run) will have to respect hisability to move the chains by gaining tough yards inside.
"Tim wasshowing a lot of flashes in practice at being able to make the big play,"says offensive coordinator Todd Haley, "and then when we ran for [aseason-high] 176 yards against St. Louis in his first game as the starter, itwas easy to jump on that bandwagon. But the thing you lose sight of about Edgeis that he doesn't have [many] minus-yard runs. Last year we were Number 1 infewest minus runs , and this year we were having a bunch of them with himout of the lineup." The Cardinals finished with 48 negative rushes, ofwhich Hightower had 19 on 143 carries. A year earlier James had 19 on 324rushes. "We found ourselves in a lot more second-and-12s,second-and-13s," says Haley. "As coach [Bill] Parcells taught me:Minus-run yards will get you beat."
Saturday'svictory was vintage James, the 11th-leading rusher in NFL history. He didn'thave a gain longer than 10 yards but also avoided a negative carry and providedquality pass protection, contributing to Warner's suffering no sacks whilethrowing for 271 yards and two scores.
James set upArizona's first touchdown by gaining chunks of yards on three straight carries,then running a flea-flicker on the fourth play, out of the same set theCardinals had shown on the first down of the series. He also got successivecarries during Arizona's 14-play touchdown drive late in the third quarter."When you know you're going to get to run back to back, you get to playwith the defense a little bit," said James. "It's no secret what typeof runner I am. I always try to get those tough yards and wear a defense down.That is what I train for. Finally I was put in a position to do it."
"He had aright to feel everything he felt," said Haley. "He has a great beliefin himself as a runner, and he never lost that. When the opportunity came backaround, he took advantage of it. I'm happy for him."
JOHN BIEVER (JAMES)
ADVANCE MAN James (32) unleashed his grinding power game against the Falcons—and that made Bertrand Berry (92) happy.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
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