If only there were championship rings handed out for offseason moves, Dennis Green would be a jeweler's fantasy. He would be the paper Bill Belichick – NFL royalty from months March through July.
Then the season starts, and the league chews up the Arizona Cardinals' paper success and spits out confetti.
So here we are again, cooing over Green's biggest offseason victory yet and marveling at his wooing of Indianapolis Colts running back Edgerrin James. It's the latest big acquisition, following 2004 and 2005 offseasons that drew rave reviews and established what was supposed to be Arizona's foundation for prosperity. But the inking of James marks something different. Unlike Green's other acquisitions, which have stocked the Cardinals with young talent and aged leadership, James carries with him a more resolute expectation:
Dennis Green and the Cardinals have to win. Now.
No more building for the future. No more waiting for maturity and system to take hold. The Cardinals have a serviceable former league MVP at quarterback, two of the best young wideouts in the NFL, another top-10 draft pick added to the mix and a defense with enough talent to win. Factor in James and his $30 million contract, and the marriage of money and expectations has officially reached its zenith.
That's the underlying current of this offseason for the Cardinals' coaching staff and front office, which failed to deliver on last season's massively hyped prospects. It's a reality that had some rolling their eyes in skepticism last month, when Green insisted the Cardinals weren't going to take a massive bite out of their ample cap space by signing a guy like James.
"A blockbuster deal in my opinion is one that eats up most of your cap space," Green said almost three weeks ago at the league's scouting combine. "It means you get one player. One and done. And we're not going to do that. If you ask me if we're going to go after one of the incredible running backs that might be available in a blockbuster deal, that probably will not happen."
Mark that statement "Exhibit A" when it comes to why NFL proclamations made in February and March should be taken with a grain of salt.
At the time, Green insisted the Cardinals needed to work on the offensive line to upgrade the running game – and give last year's second-round pick, running back J.J. Arrington, another chance. The words never really held water. Not with the Cardinals' love for USC running back LenDale White being such a poorly kept secret leading into the combine.
So what changed with White? A few things.
First, he reported to the combine in poor enough shape that it irked those in Indianapolis who rightfully expected to see him work out (which he didn't do). Second, the free-agent market for James wasn't as vast as most portrayed it, making the Cardinals a legitimate destination. And finally, Arizona had the offseason equivalent of a free-agent victory cigar – cap space and a splurging attitude.
Luckily for the Cardinals, they found a perfect partner in James. Despite being one third of the Colts' famous offensive trio, James has always had the aura of someone who wanted to go solo. He never took to the weather in Indianapolis, never seemed to be consistently enamored with his role and, conversely, never appeared to be the Colts' No. 1 contract priority. Clearly, James was irked in having to take a back seat to the other two "Triplets," Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison.
This time last year, James was still telling friends that he wanted to be a Miami Dolphin or Atlanta Falcon. And for a while, it looked like he might get his wish. And even when he returned to Indianapolis and Colts coach Tony Dungy stressed how much he wanted James in the fold long-term, James' future residence was at best a 50-50 wager.
For the Colts, the prospect of doling out another cap-straining contract for James simply wasn't worth the gamble. Not for an offense that is still pass-first. And not when the NFL landscape is thick with above-average running backs and the draft is churning out an average of three to five starting quality players at the position each year.
Even now, we can expect the Colts to take a look at Baltimore's Jamal Lewis in free agency, along with second-tier offerings like Minnesota's Michael Bennett and Tennessee's Travis Henry. Also, a number of backs will be hovering around the 30th pick in the draft – namely Minnesota's Laurence Maroney, LSU's Joseph Addai and Wisconsin's Brian Calhoun.
Still, such options are dangerous and wrought with uncertainty. Look no further than the Cardinals, who needed a running back last year and nearly traded for Henry but settled for Arrington in the draft. Struggling with a poor offensive line and surrounding injuries, Arrington never looked capable of handling a starting tailback's load, and Arizona was doomed to mediocrity.
Which brings us full circle. Here we are, with Dennis Green and the Cardinals making the biggest waves early in a free-agent period, much like last season when Arizona picked up what seemed to be three quality starters in defensive end Chike Okeafor, offensive tackle Oliver Ross and quarterback Kurt Warner. That group was complemented by Green's second straight strong draft and ushered in what most thought would be a playoff season.
Now James is on board, and another strong draft seems predictable. In a few months, we'll be anointing Dennis Green as one of the big winners from March to July. But if he can't carry it over – if Green can't sustain his victorious fortunes in the 2006 season – the title of Offseason King will be the last crown he wears in Arizona.