Cardinals running back Edgerrin James shares a laugh with teammates near the end of a victory in the season finale against St. Louis.
Edgerrin James stood in the middle of the Cardinals' locker room following their final game, the top of his hoody pulled over his head, and spoke for the last time in 2007.
The running game wasn't quite what he or coach Ken Whisenhunt had envisioned, despite James running for 1,222 yards – the highest total for a Cardinal since the franchise moved to Arizona.
And that contradiction followed James in almost every direction this season.
"I like to play the game and I want to be involved. I want to be more involved," James said that day. "I am not somebody to complain or say this and that. I just want to play and do whatever I can because it's kind of boring on the sidelines. (This season) is probably the most I have been on the sideline, but it is a different system and we are just getting a feel for each other."
Whisenhunt's first year as coach featured compromise as he meshed his plans with the current roster. Nowhere was that more apparent than the eventual emphasis on passing, which allowed quarterback Kurt Warner to throw 27 touchdown passes and the Cards to score more than 400 points for the first time since 1984 – but also meant the Cards ran less than expected.
It left James' role in a sort of flux.
While James felt underutilized, he still had 324 carries this season, only one off the NFL-leading 325 from Washington's Clinton Portis. James' average of 20.2 carries per game was fourth in the NFL, barely behind Buffalo's Marshawn Lynch (21.5), Pittsburgh's Willie Parker (21.4) and Portis (20.3) for the most in the league.
His 337 carries in 2006 were a franchise record. This season ranked fourth in team history.
(In fairness to James, his wanting to be more involved had to do in part with being replaced in passing situations with J.J. Arrington, after James' had a career-tying low 24 catches this year.)
Yet as James attempted to put the season in perspective, he seemed to bounce back and forth between frustration and a belief improvement was inevitable in 2008.
"As we go on, you see things getting better and better, and it is a matter of being patient," said James, who was still a Pro Bowl first alternate in 2007. "That's the thing. That's the hardest thing you have to do."
Whisenhunt emphasized many times he wants to be able to run the ball more effectively, if not more often.
"We are going to do what's best for us to win football games," Whisenhunt said. "If that means we have to throw it a little bit more just based on what's the best fit for us, we are going to do that."
Part of the offensive compromise was adjusting some running plays to use zone blocking as opposed to straight power blocking, so to fit better James' talents.
Piling up big numbers is also more of a grind for James because he doesn't have the ability to add a yardage-eating sprint. That isn't new for James – since he had five runs of at least 30 yards as a rookie in 1999, he hasn't had more than two in a season since. As a Cardinal, he has none in two seasons, with a 27-yard scamper in Baltimore his longest.
James had four runs of at least 20 yards this season, after none in 2006.
Asked generally about adding speed on offense, Whisenhunt said it was something the team will look at but was difficult to assess without knowing what was available in the draft and in free agency.
One theme James has harped upon has been his take that defenses have loaded up against the Cardinals' run despite the presence of Pro Bowl receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. Having extra defenders in the box, as James reiterated after the last game, "is not what I signed up for," adding an incredulous chuckle for emphasis.
Boldin and Fitzgerald were supposed to stretch the defense and make it easier for him to run, James believes. Instead, he thinks it has worked the other way.
"It is give and take," James said. "Now, if they back up and we run the ball, the receivers aren't going to have as many yards and then it is going to look like they aren't doing their part or something. It is part of the game.
"That is what you have to deal with. That's the frustrating thing. How can you have Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald and still be getting eight men in the box? That's hard to swallow. But when you go out and see Anquan have big days, see Fitz have big days, it's like 'OK, you are doing your part.' It may not show up statistically but it means something when they are dropping an extra guy to stop you."
James mostly kept a low-profile this year. When asked if he wanted to be in Arizona next season, he said "I want to play" and "I love the game," but James -- who will turn 30 at the beginning of next training camp – may be asked to share more carries as the years progress.
In the past, James has always deflected such talk. And in the aftermath of another season elapsed, Edge's self-confidence ultimately appeared at the end of his 2007 assessment.
"It is," James said, "going to get better."
Contact Darren Urban at email@example.com. Posted 1/7/08.