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Standing in front of a luxurious edifice on a rainy desert night, Edgerrin James, a modern-day Gene Kelly with dreadlocks and gold-capped teeth, refused to let the downpour dampen his enthusiasm. "Welcome to my world," James said last Friday just before midnight, gesturing toward the lobby of the Phoenix Ritz-Carlton, the glimmering, 11-story hotel he currently calls home. "I love it here in the desert, man. I've got everything I've been looking for as a football player--money, a cool coach, practices that don't kill you, two great receivers--and we're going to be good. This is a pretty sweet place to be right now." A little more than 13 hours later James, the Arizona Cardinals' new starting halfback, locker room linchpin, wardrobe consultant, interior decorator and pool shark, was marveling at the majesty of another impressive structure-- Cardinals Stadium, the just-completed, $455 million flying-saucer replica that sits amid farmland 15 miles northwest of downtown Phoenix. The final introduction before the team's preseason opener against the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers last Saturday, James inspired a prolonged roar from the 63,400 fans, some of whose goose bumps could not be blamed on the state-of-the-art air-conditioning system. Eighteen years after the Cardinals arrived from St. Louis, pro football has finally become cool in the Valley of the Sun.
"Edgerrin has changed the way we do things," Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner said after Arizona's 21--13 victory over the Steelers. "He's so excited, so focused on winning, and everyone around him feeds off that. We know the whole culture of an organization doesn't change overnight, but there's a positive vibe here that continues to build. Guys don't feel that the organization is happy with the status quo, and Edgerrin's presence is a constant reminder that we're creating an atmosphere that's conducive to winning."
Granted, that process hasn't yet yielded any meaningful victories--the Cardinals are coming off a 5--11 season and have finished above .500 just once while based in Arizona. James, however, has had plenty of success since last March, when the prize of the 2006 free agent class signed a four-year, $30 million deal with Arizona after seven stellar seasons with the Indianapolis Colts. Saturday was a typically fruitful afternoon for the Edge. After playing only the opening series, carrying twice for minus-two yards as Warner keyed Arizona's 56-yard touchdown drive, James found a novel way to spice up the monotony of preseason football. Making small wagers with teammates on everything from how many yards fifth-string halfback Diamond Ferri would gain to whether a player with an odd- or even-numbered jersey would recover the Steelers' last-gasp onside kick, James incrementally increased his net worth.
The NFL's answer to Jeanette (the Black Widow) Lee, James has collected considerably more green from other Cardinals after repeatedly schooling them at a local pool hall, but he is paying dividends for his teammates. "EJ is constantly talking about winning and being the best, and we feed off that," says veteran fullback Femi Ayanbadejo. "I don't care how good he is on the field; his greatest value, to us, is the enthusiasm and energy he exudes."
James is also improving the quality of life in an organization long known for its cheapness and substandard amenities. Mounted in the empty locker next to James's at the team's training facility in Tempe is a 20-inch plasma TV that the halfback persuaded vice president and general counsel Michael Bidwill to purchase. "I barely even watch TV, man," James says. "But the locker room should be a place where guys want to hang out." The flat-screen is just one of many elements of an Extreme Team Makeover spearheaded by the halfback that include an iPod port and speaker set, which allow him to serve as a locker-room deejay; improved Wi-Fi access; and a switch to black cleats. "He came in and put his foot down, and now he's running the show down there," says Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, who makes his off-season home in Arizona, of his friend.
"What's going on here is bigger than a plasma TV," says Warner, who completed nine of 13 passes for 118 yards and two touchdowns against the Steelers, evoking memories of his two MVP seasons with the St. Louis Rams. "But that TV is a symbol of the walls that have been broken down."
Berlin this isn't, however. These are still Bill Bidwill's Cardinals, and the team is a reported $12 million under the salary cap. Saturday's game took place without No. 10 overall selection Matt Leinart; the former USC star quarterback was the last remaining unsigned draft pick. (On Monday night there were reports that Leinart and the Cardinals had agreed in principle on a deal.)
Michael Bidwill, the 41-year-old former federal prosecutor who has supplanted his father as the team's top decision-maker, is driven by a desire to end the ridicule often associated with his family name. He believes that a trio of strong talent evaluators (coach Dennis Green, vice president of football operations Rod Graves and college scouting director Steve Keim) and the revenue stream generated by the new stadium can spur the franchise to once unimaginable heights. "We've got a lot of talented players and a great coach," Bidwill says. "Now we want results."
In other words, it's time. Green won just 11 games in his first two seasons in Arizona, after a largely successful 10-year run with the Minnesota Vikings. If he doesn't win this year, he'll be as obsolete as those aluminum benches that Cardinals fans once endured on scorching-hot Sundays at Sun Devil Stadium.
Though they lack depth at many positions, the Cardinals look like playoff contenders. Last year Warner teamed with wideouts Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald to form the NFL's top passing attack. This year's Cardinals should be far more balanced thanks to James, who is coming off his fourth season with at least 1,500 rushing yards, and an improved set of blockers led by new offensive line coach Steve Loney. With an elite pass rusher in defensive end Bertrand Berry, a dynamic playmaker in strong safety Adrian Wilson and perhaps the league's top placekicker in Neil Rackers, the Cardinals are poised to make their stadium shake from its removable grass field to its retractable roof.