The hits kept coming, steadily and sadistically, but Edgerrin James just bit his lip and absorbed the blows. All last season, his first year back from reconstructive knee surgery, the Indianapolis Colts' two-time Pro Bowl halfback felt like a target moving at half speed. Finally, in the midst of Indy's humiliating wild-card playoff loss to the New York Jets, James resolved to get even in 2003. That's it, James decided after one particularly vicious gang tackle, glaring up at his opponents. Kick me when I'm down, and enjoy it now, because when I get hack, I'm going to make all y'all pay.
The numbers James produced in the Colts' 33-7 victory over the Tennessee Titans on Sunday suggest that he's fulfilling that prophesy, but the statistics alone don't do the story justice. For instance, while we can report that James carried 30 times for 120 yards and a touchdown, it is much tougher to quantify the way that he and his teammates, often labeled a finesse team, stood up to their physical AFC South rivals. If you really want to break down James's revival, there are other numbers to consider: $50,000, the money he spent in the off-season to turn a former lounge in his hometown of Immokalee, Fla., into his personal gym; 4 a.m., the hour at which he would typically arrive in Immokalee after having driven some 100 miles across the Everglades from Miami; and "20 bucks and breakfast," what James says he paid his "workout partners"—many of them crackheads hanging out near his gym whom he recruited each day—after the grueling, early-morning sessions that restored his body to peak condition. "I know it doesn't sound like much," James says jokingly, "but for crackheads, that's two hits and a solid meal."
The way the night owl James saw it, to regain the form that enabled him to lead the NFL in rushing in each of his first two seasons, 1999 and 2000, it was imperative that he work out on his own schedule, peculiar as it might have seemed. So James created Alligator Alley's answer to a 24-hour fitness center. As for his spotters and running partners, he didn't have a lot of options. "At that time of night the crackheads are the only ones awake," James says. "I'd roll down Second Street, find a dude stumbling around and say, 'Yo, come rack my weights.' Other times I'd pay one to run with me." Talk about speed training.
On Sunday in the RCA Dome, James had an afternoon that was more bash than flash. With his longest gain only 19 yards, he did most of his running inside, shoving through crowds of Tennessee defenders. In similar circumstances last season, James, still struggling with knee pain and plagued by assorted other ailments at the time (a pair of high-ankle sprains, a right-hamstring pull and cracked rib cartilage), often looked like a crash-test dummy. This time he and the Colts served notice to the Titans that they won't be pushed around anymore.
"When Edgerrin is hitting it downhill like that, we're a totally different team," says Indy quarterback Peyton Manning, whose low-key 173 passing yards included a resplendent, 35-yard touchdown grab by Pro Bowl wideout Marvin Harrison that gave the Colts a 17-7 lead shortly before halftime. "Last year teams weren't respecting the run, and that allowed defensive ends to pin back their ears and linebackers to blow off the play action. This year we'll make them respect the run."
You can bet the Titans have far more respect for the Colts now than they did going into Sunday's game. Fresh on the minds of Tennessee's players were last season's two victories over Indy, which proved to be the difference in the division race won by the Titans. Some veterans also remembered the 1999 divisional playoff meeting between the two clubs, a 19-16 Tennessee victory en route to an appearance in Super Bowl XXXIV. The final analysis in all three games was that Indy had crumbled under an opponent's physical might.
Coming off a fierce 25-20 victory over the Oakland Raiders in the season opener, the Titans planned to lay the smack down in 'Naptown. "We're going to try and put a foot in their ass and whack 'em around, no doubt," Tennessee linebacker Keith Bulluck said last Friday night.
But on a weekend in which Nashville mourned the passing of the Man in Black—country legend Johnny Cash—the Men in Pantone Blue failed to walk the line. "They didn't bring it like they normally do, for whatever reason," Colts fullback Detron Smith said. "We wanted to outplay them, outhit them, outsmart them and outhustle them, and in this game we did." Five Titans went down with injuries, including quarterback Steve McNair, who missed two series with a dislocated right ring finger. Second-year Indy coach Tony Dungy's improving defense, which held the Cleveland Browns without a touchdown in the Colts' season-opening 9-6 victory, had five sacks and two takeaways against Tennessee, including cornerback Nick Harper's 75-yard interception return for a touchdown with 22 seconds remaining.
It was James, however, who set the tone: He carried the ball on eight of Indy's first 11 plays, including a fourth-and-one on which the 6-foot, 214-pounder ducked his head and bulled through Bulluck and safety Lance Schulters for two yards. He looked equally strong on the two-yard touchdown run with 6:18 left in the second quarter that gave the Colts a 10-7 lead.
In short, James, 25, once again appeared to be the agile, powerful back who tormented defenders until the sixth game of his third season when, during a victory over the Kansas City Chiefs, he awkwardly planted his left foot on the Arrowhead Stadium grass and tore his anterior cruciate ligament. He considered it a freak injury and was intent on returning with a bang in 2002, ignoring the dictum that it's not until the second year after major knee surgery that a back regains his form. "I tried to rush things," he admits. "My first two years, when I'd run, it was duck, dodge and laugh. But last year people had a chance to get some clean shots on me, and they unloaded. Once I hurt my ankles, I couldn't push off on short yardage, and I had no endurance, which used to be my strength."