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AFTER HELPING the Cardinals to a 30--24 NFC wild-card victory over the favored Falcons last Saturday, running back Edgerrin James walked slowly to his car in a dimly lit lot behind University of Phoenix Stadium. He wore baggy blue jeans and an oversized hooded sweatshirt that covered his telltale hair twists. His head was down, his face partially obscured, but that didn't prevent fans from noticing him. They stopped James every few steps, asking for autographs on trading cards, hats, footballs, even a red Cards jersey still on the back of the man who owned it. James obliged each request.
The fans' appreciation was understandable. The hard-running 10-year vet was coming off a 16-carry, 73-yard performance that was vital to Arizona's first playoff win since the 1998 season. But the autograph seekers may well have had another motive: obtaining a keepsake from what was probably James's final game in Arizona as a Cardinal.
Despite having one year left on a contract that would pay him $5 million in '09, James has said he doesn't expect to return. He wants to run more; the Cards are committed to throwing. Arizona ranked last in the NFL in rushing attempts with 21.2 per game (and second-to-last in yards per carry, at 3.5) but had three wideouts—Larry Fitzgerald, Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston—surpass 1,000 yards. Behind QB Kurt Warner, the Cards were second in the NFL in pass attempts, with 39.4 per game.
A resolution must wait until season's end, but in the meantime James, 30, is providing one of the postseason's most intriguing story lines. Benched after seven games for speedy rookie Tim Hightower, James was reinserted into the lineup for the season finale and remained there against Atlanta. His 173 rushing yards over the past two games are seven more than he had in his previous 12 combined. Now he could be the key to the Cardinals' chances this Saturday at Carolina, because the Panthers defense (20th in the league against the run) will have to respect his ability to move the chains by gaining tough yards inside.
"Tim was showing a lot of flashes in practice at being able to make the big play," says offensive coordinator Todd Haley, "and then when we ran for [a season-high] 176 yards against St. Louis in his first game as the starter, it was easy to jump on that bandwagon. But the thing you lose sight of about Edge is that he doesn't have [many] minus-yard runs. Last year we were Number 1 in fewest minus runs , and this year we were having a bunch of them with him out of the lineup." The Cardinals finished with 48 negative rushes, of which Hightower had 19 on 143 carries. A year earlier James had 19 on 324 rushes. "We found ourselves in a lot more second-and-12s, second-and-13s," says Haley. "As coach [Bill] Parcells taught me: Minus-run yards will get you beat."
Saturday's victory was vintage James, the 11th-leading rusher in NFL history. He didn't have a gain longer than 10 yards but also avoided a negative carry and provided quality pass protection, contributing to Warner's suffering no sacks while throwing for 271 yards and two scores.
James set up Arizona's first touchdown by gaining chunks of yards on three straight carries, then running a flea-flicker on the fourth play, out of the same set the Cardinals had shown on the first down of the series. He also got successive carries during Arizona's 14-play touchdown drive late in the third quarter. "When you know you're going to get to run back to back, you get to play with the defense a little bit," said James. "It's no secret what type of runner I am. I always try to get those tough yards and wear a defense down. That is what I train for. Finally I was put in a position to do it."
"He had a right to feel everything he felt," said Haley. "He has a great belief in himself as a runner, and he never lost that. When the opportunity came back around, he took advantage of it. I'm happy for him."