The season-long assault on Edgerrin James' dignity had just crossed the line from misdemeanor to felony, and the Arizona Cardinals' unhappy halfback made a spontaneous and atypical decision. Half an hour after carrying four times – four times! – in the Cardinals' 31-26 defeat to the Minnesota Vikings last Nov. 26, the fallen All-Pro stood in the Metrodome parking lot and uttered a two-word expletive that translated roughly to "Peace out."
Instead of boarding the team bus and heading to the airport with the rest of the Cardinals, James took a ride on the party bus that Vikings tackle Bryant McKinnie, a fellow University of Miami alum, had commissioned to transport him and his crew to and from the game. Back at McKinnie's house, James got on the phone and booked a red-eye flight to Miami, Monday's mandatory practice be damned.
He didn't bother to call any of his Cardinals bosses to give them the news. After a concerned team official repeatedly phoned James to find out why he hadn't shown up for the flight home, James didn't call back.
"I sent a text," he said.
Call it a 21st-century "Postcard from the Edge."
"I was pissed," James recalled early Sunday morning, hours following Arizona's 33-31 preseason defeat to the San Diego Chargers. "That was the low point."
There is legitimate promise now in the desert, as first-year coach Ken Whisenhunt attempts to jump-start the talented Cardinals' offense in a way that predecessor Denny Green couldn't. But last November, as the Cards wheezed to a 2-9 start and missed the playoffs for the 18th time in 19 seasons in Arizona, James, a relentless optimist in normal times, was darn near mutinous.
"Four f----- carries – I couldn't believe it," said James, who sat out Saturday night's game after tweaking his right hamstring earlier in the week. "I'm thinking, 'Why am I here?' It had been such a difficult season, and I hit my breaking point. Plus, my grandma was sick."
Back in his hometown of Immokalee, Fla., EJ's maternal grandmother, Ann James, was lying in a hospital bed, her condition presumed to be dire. "She was losing blood, and family members were coming from all over because we thought it was gonna be the end," he recalled. "Normally, when it's during the football season, I don't come home even for major family issues. I'm so dedicated to the game, and I feel like it's my job to be the breadwinner. But this time, I was like, 'To hell with it. I'm going home to see Grandma.' "
Surprised and delighted when her famous grandson showed up the next morning, Ann James ended up making a full recovery. Coming off a season in which he was written off as an elite back by many talent evaluators, including a highly respected personnel man to whom I spoke recently who believes the running back "lost his burst," James believes that he, too, can get well soon.
"We are so ready to win," he said.
James was similarly excited about Arizona's chances last year, after having signed a four-year, $30-million deal as the franchise's splashiest-ever free-agent catch. Yet the patient, smooth runner who starred for the Indianapolis Colts from 1999 to 2005 was caught flat-footed in Arizona, finding precious little room to run behind a flaccid offensive line.
Green's system didn't help, either: Effective as a spread offense the previous year, the Cardinals began favoring a two-tight-end formation that brought more defenders into the box to stop James. An injury to Larry Fitzgerald, one of the team's two stud wideouts (along with the brilliant Anquan Boldin), didn't help, either.
"Teams knew what was coming," James said. "Opponents were calling out plays before we ran them. (Chicago Bears middle linebacker) Brian Urlacher, when we played them, told me, 'Dude, I feel bad for you. They're not giving you a chance.' "
That was the early October game that summed up the Cardinals' season, a Monday night monstrosity in which Arizona blew a 23-3 third-quarter lead and lost 24-23 – setting up Green's precious "Go ahead and crown 'em!" press-conference tirade.
"I carried seven times for 31 yards on the first drive and finished 36 for 55," James remembered. "That's just crazy."
Given all the adversity, James was proud of his 2006 numbers: 337 carries for 1,159 yards. His average per carry, 3.4, was down from his prior career mark of 4.2, and he scored only six touchdowns, though that was partly his doing.
Fantasy players, cover your eyes and skip the rest of this paragraph: In a selfless move, James removed himself from several late-season goal-line situations so that his backup, Marcel Shipp (four TDs in 17 carries), could pad his numbers. "It was Shipp's contract year," James explained. "He needed those touchdowns more than I did."
After partying it up in Miami with many of his former Colts teammates before their Super Bowl triumph over the Bears, James got down to business, resolutely determined to re-establish himself as an impact runner.
"When that many people say you've lost something, it gets you wondering," he admitted. "I didn't think I'd lost anything, but I'm biased so I wanted to be sure. I checked all my numbers. There were no problems with my flexibility or range of motion. I was running (a 40-yard dash) in the 4.4s and squatting almost 500 pounds."
Still, James wanted further confirmation. Following the Cardinals' first mini-camp practice under Whisenhunt, James approached assistant head/offensive line coach Russ Grimm, another coaching transplant from Bill Cowher's Pittsburgh Steelers staff, and asked for a blunt assessment of his skill level.
"Coach, man, you watched all the film," James said to Grimm as they stood on the practice field at the team's training facility. "Why am I not having success, and what can I do differently? I can take whatever you have to say; I just want the truth. Don't hold nothing back."
Grimm's response, James said, "was like a confirmation for me. He said, 'Just keep doing exactly what you're doing, and we'll get (the blocking problems) squared away. Trust me, it's not you. Looking at the film, I don't know how you were able to do what you did.' "
A few weeks after James related this conversation to me in the spring, I asked a longtime scout whether he thought the halfback, who turned 29 earlier this month, had lost something. "I was sure he had," the scout replied, "but I went back and watched a bunch of the film, and you know what? He actually ran pretty well. There was just nowhere to go."
The Cardinals' continued faith in James was evident in April. Though former Oklahoma halfback Adrian Peterson was near the top of the team's NFL draft board and was available when Arizona made its first-round selection, the Cardinals used the fifth overall pick on ex-Penn State tackle Levi Brown, a mauler who should make Grimm's intended quick-fix a bit more plausible.
After Saturday's game, James ventured to midfield and got some love from another resting running back, San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson. The reigning league MVP understands what James was up against last season more than most and, as a beneficiary of All-Pro fullback Lorenzo Neal's hard-nosed blocking, knows that Whisenhunt's two-back offense should give the Edge some much-needed help at the point of attack.
"All those years without a fullback, I didn't realize what I was missing," James said early Sunday as we stood near the bar at a bustling Phoenix nightclub. He was sipping a small glass of Patron and Rosie's Lime Juice while surrounded by the usual assemblage of lovely ladies. "Before, if someone whiffed, I had to deal with the guy immediately. Now that's the fullback's job."
The Edge is older and wiser now, a businessman who recently shed the gold teeth he'd sported since age 15 and who proudly shows off photos of his kids on his Treo. The most entertaining shot featured his 2-year-old son, Edgerrin Jr., wearing a replica UM helmet – including the shield worn by Canes sophomore halfback Javarris James, EJ's cousin – while sitting on the toilet.
"That's how much this kid loves football," James said, laughing. "And I know exactly how he feels."
What James would really love is to prove that reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated. For that I-told-you-so moment, he has a plan.
"I'm gonna have T-shirts made," he said. "On the front, they'll say, 'Remember Me?' On the back, 'I told you it wasn't my fault.' "
I'M HOT 'CAUSE I'M FLY …
• If 32-year-old coach Lane Kiffin is going to have any credibility in the Oakland Raiders' locker room, Daunte Culpepper must start at quarterback. I'm not saying Andrew Walter is a stiff, but that would be one adjective that describes his play to date. And Josh McCown is just a guy. Culpepper won the job by outplaying the other two, and because Raiders owner Al Davis apparently used up the No. 1 overall pick on a quarterback he had no intention of signing before the start of the season, there's only one sane decision that can be made. This is the Raiders, though, so brace yourself for something nonsensical.
• It's good to see Peerless Price back doing his thing with the Buffalo Bills after his career got sidetracked – first in Vickville, then in Dallas – for a few years. I want Price to do something momentous (like helping to end the Bills' AFC-worst playoff drought, for starters) before all is said and done, if only to see Martin Lawrence play him in the movie.
• There are few press-room locales more fun than the Voodoo Lounge, a room in the prefab trailer in which the Chargers house their media, as beat writers Jay Paris and Bernie Wilson keep things light by honoring luminaries from Marty Schottenheimer (last year they started an over-under game based on the number of times the coach uttered some of his patented phrases, like the inevitable "quite frankly" in press conferences) to Pam Anderson (sometime love interest of San Diego long snapper Dave Binn) to Mick Jagger. Last Monday Paris busted out his latest nickname for control-freak general manager A.J. Smith, now firmly in command of the franchise's football operations after Schottenheimer's firing: "The Lord of No Rings."
• Keep an eye on Stephen Cooper, one of the Chargers' new starting inside linebackers, who certainly will benefit from the shrewd coaching of new San Diego assistant Ron Rivera (the most overqualified position coach in football) and could emerge as a serious playmaker. 'Coop' certainly has the personality to pull it off: He's fun-loving and a little crazy, straight from the Urlacher/Zach Thomas school. Says veteran fullback Neal: "He could easily lead the team in tackles."
• You will not find two star athletes more awesome in every single way than Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy. Congratulations, ladies, on your induction into the National Soccer Hall of Fame, and we look forward to seeing your newborn daughters dominate some field in about 20 years.
… YOU AIN'T 'CAUSE YOU'RE NOT
• Brodie Croyle may end up being a proficient quarterback for the Chiefs, but the kid clearly wasn't ready for the starting job that his employers seemed utterly determined to hand him. Give coach Herm Edwards credit: Had he force-fed Croyle to the team's offensive players they'd have known Kansas City, a surprise playoff participant in '06, wasn't playing to win; Croyle might as well have had "We're Rebuilding" on the back of his jersey. By going with Damon Huard, Edwards and team president Carl Peterson are at least leaving open the possibility that the Chiefs can be respectable this season.
• Uh, let's see: Nick Saban already is being heralded as a savior by 'Bama fans before having coached a single game, while the mess he left in Miami looks worse than ever. Now Ronnie Brown, the No. 2 overall pick in the '05 draft (out of Auburn), might not even keep his starting halfback's job? Well, at least they're happy in Tuscaloosa, right?
• Paging Charlie Frye. Please report to the white courtesy telephone. And take a seat on the bench. Your career as a starting quarterback is now over.
• Before I pick the Cardinals to win the NFC West for a third consecutive year, I'd like to see Arizona's defense stop somebody in the preseason – just once. Big-hitting safety Adrian Wilson is one of the league's best players, but the dude needs help.
• If you see me in Tampa, Fla., remind me not to get pulled over, because even when sober I don't have the discipline to sit quietly through this.
• If you're looking for a complete dufus, check out Lubbock, Texas, Little League manager Ed Thorne, who set a fine example for his kids after Saturday's 5-2 defeat to Warner Robins, Ga., in the Little League World Series semifinals. Asked by a reporter if he was convinced that the better team lost, Thorne answered, "Yes sir, I am." He said of Warner Robins' upcoming matchup in the championship game, "Japan will win that ballgame. Every ball we hit went right at people. You hate to lose games like that, but that's baseball." Hey, Ed, did you happen to catch Dalton Carriker's walkoff homer for Warner Robins in extra innings Sunday – and the wild celebration that followed, along with some excellent sportsmanship by both teams in the mound area? Great moment, huh?
TWO THINGS I CAN'T COMPREHEND
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"Michael, you should try fantasy football in order to have a true opinion on it and what motivates people to do it. I am not saying that in order to 'know' something you have to try it, so please don't jump in with the 'Do I have to kill someone in order to have an opinion about a murderer?' What I am saying is that playing fantasy football should have no effect on your relationship with players, or your attitude or opinions on what is happening in the league. I play, not for the money (though it is a nice sideline), in order to keep myself up on what is going on with the league. I don't get to see many NFL games, and my weekly interaction with my FFL makes me learn about a lot of players I would otherwise no nothing about. Thanks."
Los Alamos, Spain
I hear you, but my job is to keep up with what's happening in the league, so I feel like I've got that covered. Besides, a more persuasive way of getting me to join up is to threaten me with insults, a strategy that profootballtalk.com's Mike Florio is adeptly employing.
"I wonder when I'm buying Tom Brady lunch … I have him on my fantasy football team (as always). And uh, if the Barbers and Mannings get it on in a mud-wrestling match, who do you think would win?
Lunch with Tommy could add new meaning to the term "Thrilla In Manila," so good luck with that. As for your question, I'll go with the Barbers, because Tiki can do some serious damage with his microphone.
"Do you think fantasy football indirectly affects personnel decisions? Fantasy football certainly has a huge impact on player popularity, and player popularity is taken into consideration in some personnel moves, right? Could fantasy football be a factor in the decline of fullbacks and the increase in receiving tight ends around the league?"
Man, I sure hope not.
"Mike, first of all, it's great to read your articles again. Second of all, thanks for saying the Pats made a mistake on Moss. As a guy who wasted $75 on that guy's jersey, and who watched him quit because he was too sad, I want to see him fail (and I want a jersey store to modify my jersey to a different player)!"
I'd offer to trade you for the Ricky Williams Argonauts jersey I bought my son last summer, but I kind of like that one, and it cost me a whole lot of Canadian dollars.
"Thank you so much for validating my love of playing fantasy football. Seriously. Being female and in an all-male league, it's hard enough to be taken seriously (You know the comments like 'you watch football for the ass right?') No moron, I actually love the game, the rivalries (no not a Cowboys fan, 49ers faithful here), and the tactics of the plays themselves. The ass is just a bonus. But it's nice to know that you might actually watch a fantasy draft. Who knows, after the exciting world of Fantasy Golf (really?! No!! You're kidding me right?) you might be up to the challenge? Then again …"
Yes, I was kidding about the fantasy golf. Now, if I were going to enter a fantasy league for the ass … well, let's just say I'm a big women's soccer fan.
"I think it is so funny when people call sports writers stupid, idiot or moron. Using the silly profanity just makes it funnier. Instead of offering a counter opinion and justifying this opinion with some degree of fact, these people cut straight to the chase and call people names. I wonder if these people really know how stupid they make themselves look. They should, they look in the mirror everyday. Thanks for sharing them. I can always use with a good laugh every day. Looking forward to your next column."
Sssshhhhh, you're killing my little cottage industry. Keep this up and Trippin' On E will suffer the same fate as Dixon Downs. May the name-calling never stop!
"You are a fool sir. There are many members of the Dubyah Fan Club. We dont bitch and moan like most hypocrite liberal douches. We rarely talk politics or try to defend our man at all. We just sit back, thank the good lord the inventor of the internet isn't in charge, and continue to pray that someone suicide bombs the next Hildog rally."
Fabulous. How's that working for you?
"Well Mike, can I call you Mike? I think you write how you feel, weather it is on point, or absolutely stupid. I will give you two more chances though for one reason and one reason only; I too went to Palisades High, graduated in the mid '80s though, so probably before your time. Go Dolphins! Sorry you made the wrong choice in colleges though, I went to SDSU, but at least your trying to do something productive."
Yes, you may call me Mike. But I'm guessing that reading your second and last sentences was not an overly proud moment for San Diego State alums.
"Michael, love your work. If I ever see you in an airport, I will buy you a meal. Aloha"
If the airport in question is in Hawaii, I can promise you this: I'll be smiling if I just arrived and pouting if I'm getting ready to depart.
TEXT/IM/EMAIL/PHONE MOMENT OF THE WEEK
"Wher r u?? Come c us!"
– Text from Brenda Warner, sitting with equally festive friend Amy Thomas in the stands of University of Phoenix Stadium, during the third quarter of Saturday night's Cardinals-Chargers game.