Less than three weeks after completing an unlikely postseason run with a solid effort on Super Sunday, Edgerrin James feels like he's running in place. The veteran halfback wants the Arizona Cardinals to release him – sooner, rather than later – insisting that he and his employers came to a de facto agreement that he would not return to the team for the 2009 season after he was benched midway through '08.
James, who has one year and $5 million remaining on the four-year, $30-million contract that brought him to the desert in February of '06, believes he does not fit the Cardinals' offensive system and wants to go to a team that will better utilize his abilities.
"We had a clear, mutual understanding of where we both were at – that this was going to be my last year – so it shouldn't be that big a deal," James said in a recent telephone interview. "My mind is already set. It didn't work, and it's time for me to push on.
"I've been a professional during this entire situation, and it's only right that they do the same. Instead of dragging things out with a player that's not going to be around next year, why not let him go?"
James' agent, Drew Rosenhaus, is scheduled to meet with Cardinals officials at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis this week to discuss the situation – as well as the desire of another Rosenhaus clients, Pro Bowl wideout Anquan Boldin, to be traded. Rod Graves, Arizona's general manager, did not respond to requests seeking comment on James' status. A source familiar with the Cardinals' thinking says James is considered the team's top halfback and is unlikely to be released unless and until a suitable replacement is obtained, most likely via the draft in late April.
In the wake of their first Super Bowl appearance, which ended in a last-minute, 27-23 defeat to the Steelers, the Cardinals are dealing with a multitude of offseason issues, including the future of quarterback Kurt Warner – who could retire or test unrestricted free agency starting Feb. 27 if not re-signed – and other key players whose contracts are expiring, including defensive ends Bertrand Berry and Antonio Smith. (The team applied the franchise tag to inside linebacker Karlos Dansby earlier this week. Warner's agent, Mark Bartelstein, has been negotiating with the Cardinals and will continue discussions in Indy this week. The two sides are likely to agree on a two-year deal that would pay Warner well over $20 million.)
There has also been upheaval in the coaching ranks. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley was hired as the Chiefs' head coach, and defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast was fired. Though neither opening has been formally filled, a team source says Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt will assume Haley's duties and split the nominal coordinator title between two current assistants – offensive line coach Russ Grimm is expected to be named "running game coordinator," and receivers coach Mike Miller will be named "passing game coordinator." The source said linebackers coach Billy Davis will be promoted to replace Pendergast, who joined Haley's staff in Kansas City on Tuesday in an unannounced capacity.
James considers his departure to be a given. The halfback hasn't been back to Arizona since before the Super Bowl, and in his mind, he has already relocated. His belongings were packed and shipped back to his offseason home in Miami in November, after he was benched by Whisenhunt.
"They already lost their running back," James said of the Cardinals. "They lost me in Week 8, 9 and 10, when they stopped playing me. I've been lost. Clearly, I wasn't what they wanted. That was when I packed up my bags and shipped my stuff home."
The resurrection he enjoyed during the postseason did nothing to change his mind. After the Super Bowl, which was played in Tampa, Fla., James stayed in his home state rather than flying back to Arizona with the team. "For what?" he asked. "Exit meetings last 10 minutes, and I've been through nine of those. What was the point?"
James, 30, is the NFL's active rushing leader with 12,121 yards, the 11th-highest total in league history. A two-time NFL rushing champion during his stellar, seven-year stint with the Colts, James believes he can return to All-Pro form if utilized the way he was in Indy. He favors "stretch" running plays, on which he can use his patience and vision, and believes he can be effective catching balls out of the backfield and setting up play-action passes.
After grinding out consecutive 1,000-yard seasons in his first two years in Arizona, James was benched in early November, as Whisenhunt inserted rookie Tim Hightower into the lineup. Over the next eight games James carried the ball just 11 times, and he asked Graves for his release. The team declined, but James believes that an understanding was reached regarding his future.
Then again, James' perceived value to the organization has changed since then because Whisenhunt went back to the veteran before the regular season finale. James ran for 100 yards in that game against the Seahawks and remained productive throughout Arizona's four-game playoff run, gaining 236 yards on 61 carries and injecting some much-needed balance into the offense.
Still, James is convinced that he is a "bad fit" for Whisenhunt's offense.
"I never came to play in a passing system," James said. "I'm no scatback, and I'm not going to try to be one. I don't train to be a scatback – I train to be an RBI hitter. I've worked too hard to build this style of play I've got, and it works. People say I can't break off the big run anymore, but the funny thing is, when I won the rushing title (in 2000, with 1,709 rushing yards) my longest run was 30 yards. This year, it was 37. So have I gotten better?"
As to where he might want to sign if granted his freedom, James has long professed a desire to play in or near the Sunshine State. Of the three teams based in Florida, the Buccaneers would seem to be the team most likely in need of a veteran back.
However, James said finding an organization committed to winning, and one which features an offense in which he could excel, would be the biggest considerations in his decision.
"[Playing close to home] has always been something, from Day 1, that I've wanted," James said. "Any time you get a chance to play for your family and friends, it's a big deal. But playing for a winner, and being in the right situation, overrides that.
"I might pay attention to some of the stuff I didn't pay attention to last time [in free agency]. I want to play for a winner, somebody that's used to winning – a winning organization that could actually use a back. Because let's be realistic: Put me back in a situation where I can do the things I did when I was at my best, and I'll kill it."
Given that James also says he's not averse to splitting carries, the obvious question is this: Would he consider a return to the Colts, where he could share the workload with Joseph Addai, the runner who replaced him? James was never thrilled with spending half the year in the heartland, but he remains on excellent terms with his ex-teammates and even received a Super Bowl ring from Indy owner Jimmy Irsay after the team won a championship the season after the halfback departed.
For one thing, he'd have no trouble fitting back into longtime coordinator Tom Moore's offensive scheme.
"That'd be the easiest offense to play for," James said. "Indy's always a team that makes sense. It'd be like one of those R&B groups when one member leaves and then comes back after a few years, and it's like he never left."
Asked how he would react if the Cardinals were to insist on keeping him in '09, James said, "My mind is pretty much 100 percent that I'm not going to be there, but if I have to be there, I'll deal with it when the time comes. I like Rod Graves. I like a lot of the people around the organization. The city of Phoenix has been good to me. But that's not where we are, and it's only right that they let me move on.
"I've always tried to be a pro and do everything the right way, and so technically I'm under contract and I want to continue playing football, and they have my rights. But clearly, I'm not what they want. I've been a pro, so why not let me go?"