? The Bill Belichick Factor. You've heard it before: Winner of three of the past four Super Bowls, Belichick, the New England Patriots' coach, has largely avoided giving big signing bonuses while building a roster of team-oriented players. After winning titles with Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk as the primary running backs, the Pats before last season traded a second-round draft choice for Cincinnati Bengals All-Pro Corey Dillon, who agreed to a pay cut as part of the deal. (After rushing for 1,635 yards in '04 and helping New England win another title, Dillon was rewarded with an extension that guarantees him $10 million.)
? The Shelf-Life Factor. Like former Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, many general managers have a don't-trust-anyone-over-30 mentality when it comes to backs, because so many prominent ones have worn down at about that point in their careers. Thus even Alexander, who turns 28 on Aug. 30, and James, who turns 27 on Aug. 1, are deemed too old to take on as long-term cap risks.
Exposing James to the open market by making him the franchise player--another team could have signed him but would have had to give up two first-round draft picks or work out a deal with the Colts--seemed like a risky proposition given his importance to the team. Late last season, as Indianapolis was running up the fifth-highest scoring total in NFL history, coach Tony Dungy cited James as the key to the team's play-action attack; Manning, en route to a league-record 49 touchdown passes, voiced a similar sentiment. Since the start of the 1999 season, Indianapolis is 59-24 when James is in the lineup and 6-9 when he's not. Yet the gamble by Colts president Bill Polian has paid off, at least for this year. "We never discussed compensation [with another team] because no one ever called us about a trade," Polian said last week. "I felt that would be the way it would go, given all the talented backs in the draft. There's also the longevity issue."
Scoffs James, "That argument doesn't work anymore. Curtis Martin [of the New York Jets] led the league in rushing last year at 31. Look at what Jerome Bettis did for the Steelers [at 32]." It's no surprise, then, that James understands why Alexander (70 touchdowns since 2001) is taking such a strong stand, saying, "If I were getting $6.32 [million], I might sit too."
At least the Seahawks have reopened negotiations with Alexander. Polian says the Colts have no plans to do so with James and that Indy is no longer open to trading him. "Absolutely not," Polian says. "Edgerrin signed a [one-year tender] of his own free will. He's a Colt, and he's going to remain a Colt, and we're happy about it."
James figures he'll play a final year in Indy and then find happiness--and a fat contract--elsewhere in 2006. By then, he reasons, the amount of base salary the Colts would be required to offer him with a franchise tag would increase by 20%, making the resulting cap hit prohibitive and compelling the team to set him free, no strings attached. Of course, Polian was willing to tie up a huge chunk of cap dollars on James this off-season, something that irks the running back to no end: Had they lowered his cap number with a long-term deal, he feels, Indy could have signed impact free agents on defense rather than essentially standing pat. This failure to improve, James suggests, could trigger the Colts' rapid drop from the ranks of the NFL elite. "You know what? What's happening to me might be good," he says. "I might be getting the Martha Stewart treatment. It worked out for her--she got five months in jail, a slap on the wrist, and she's still getting paid. The way I look at it, I've got five months to serve, too."
Back at Shout, the Atlanta hot spot at which he had no shortage of suitors, James was still grousing about the dried-up running back market with Portis, his friend and fellow former University of Miami standout, when the dinner check arrived. Suddenly, all conversation ceased as into the room walked another James, but this one, LeBron, most certainly could not relate to the topic of discussion. "Let's get the hell out of here," Edgerrin said to Portis, laughing. "Let the groupies follow LeBron."
It didn't happen. As the two NFL players stepped out into the Hotlanta night, several young women trailed them.
"How long are you in town for?" one woman asked. "What are you doing later?" The night was young, but James expressed no interest, heading toward the garage where he and his friends had parked.
"Hey, where's the next spot?" the woman shouted before he disappeared. "Just tell me where you're going."