Arizona Cardinals: Sharpening The Edge

The Prodigy@@FantsySprtsHomeCorrespondent IJanuary 31, 2009

James prepares for the Final Dance...

When the 2008 season opened up, there was some speculation around "The Watercooler" that the Cardinal's running back Edgerrin James could be running on his last legs in the Arizona desert. After all, James was entering his 10th season in the NFL, and, lets face it, for a running back, that's a lot of years.

Another factor that made the obvious and eventual transition more apparent was the team's drafting of rookie running back Tim Hightower, who many figured a would take over the rushing duties at some point in the season. A fifth-round selection, the team was very impressed with Hightower heading into the season, as were the football experts who pegged him a starter at some point.

In week one of the 2008 season against the Niners, no one in the league carried the ball more times than James, who finished the game with 100-yards on 26 carries in his first start of the season. While this was a good start for the Edge, it may not have been sharp enough to deter the detractors that felt the team would be more successful going in another direction. James continued to start the next seven weeks, but with diminishing carries and decreasing numbers, it was evident that change was coming.

In Week 9 against the Rams, the Cardinals made the change official, starting Hightower over James. Edgerrin didn't even see any action that Sunday. He stood on the sideline and watched in frustration as his time in the sun had passed. This certainly wasn't what the former Miami Hurricane was used to being a part of.

James was drafted by the Colts in 1999 and started every game in Indianapolis his rookie season. In his first NFL season, the Edge would carry the ball 369 times and rush for 1,553-yards (led the NFL), scoring 17 touchdowns. The Edge would lead the NFL in rushing his first two seasons, and go on to start his first 38 games in Indy, until Week 7 of the 2001 season, when he tore his ACL.

It wasn't until 2003 that James, completely healed from his injuries, would bounce back with a strong productive season, rushing for 1,259-yards and 11 touchdowns. In 2004, the Edge was magnificient. Leading the Colts to the playoffs for the third consecutive season, James rushed for over 1,500-yards.

James would complete his final year (2005) in Indianapolis with his fourth 1,500 yard seadon and 14 total touchdowns. For his career with the Colts, James would finish with 9,226 yards rushing, 75 career total touchdowns (including 64 rushing), and 356 receptions for another 2,839 yards.

While his time with the Colts was fruitful, James was allowed to leave Indianapolis, and was signed by the Cardinals in 2006. When he arrived in the Arizona, he was expected to be the team's main rushing threat, something that the team had been missing. In 2006 and 2007, James saw his production dip from his earlier years, indicating that maybe his best years were behind him, and that time could be catching up.

As the Cardinal's running back started out the 2008 campaign, he appeared to be back in the saddle, but after a poor Week 4 performance, nine carries for 29-yards against the Jets, things began to go south quickly. With just nine carries against the Cowboys (Week 6) and seven carries against the Panthers (Week 8), the writing was on the wall.

Without question, this was a difficult time for a competitor like James. Having comeback from an ACL injury earlier in his career, Edgerrin was accustomed to facing adversity, but could he overcome "Father-time?"

The move to go with a younger running back with fresher legs seemed to make sense. But it didn't take long before the Cardinals, one of the NFL's more explosive passing offenses, became one dimensional. During weeks 10 to 16, the Cardinals ground game sputtered, averaging just 46 YPG with James spending most of his time as an observer, rather than a ball carrier.

In a move to try and spark a running attack, head coach Ken Whisenhunt put the Edge back into the ground game in Week 17, and suddenly it found life. In the team's finale, Arizona rushed for 111 yards against the Seahawks, led by James' 100 yards on 14 carries.
Heading into the playoffs, there were two things apparent. To be successful, the Cards would need Warner to play well, and the ground game to run effective. Through three postseason games, the ground game has been just that, effective. In their three games, the Cards led by James, have averaged 111 YPG on the ground and 3.3 yards per carry.

While this does not seem like a significant number or statistic, with careful examination, the proof is in the pudding. Through weeks 10-16, the team averaged just 16 carries per game and a meager 2.8 yards per carry. The offensive play-calling had become lopsided, with less than 28% being run plays. The Cardinals explosive offense had become predictable and vulnerable.

With James locked and loaded, the Cardinals are flying at new heights. Since Week 17, the team is still averaging a pedestrian 3.7-yards per carry, but the effectiveness has been in their 111 yards rushing and 29 carries per game (47% of their play calls). The team has found balance and seems to be riding the razor's edge!

This will be Edgerrin's first trip to the Super Bowl, an unlikely prospect for this 10-year veteran when the season opened. But here he is, caught smack in the middle of what could be a "Hollywood ending."
James is not a stranger to his own controversy, voicing his frustrations after being benched by Whisenhunt. The Edge was dulled by playing the role of a back-up and revealed his expectation that he would be released in the off-season. He even went as far as asking to released following his benching in Week 9.

The 2008 season has not been a smooth ride for the Cardinal's leading rusher, but now he's back where he started and standing on the biggest stage of his career. When the 30-year old veteran takes the field on Sunday, he'll have a chance at magic.

The Cardinals have been riding a wing and a prayer through 21 weeks, and have found sweet emotion singing a song of football poetry. With one more rhyme and reason, the stage will be set for the Cardinals and Edgerrin James to complete one of the most thrilling and unexpected finishes to season of adversity and perseverance.

Perhaps one of the least talked about players on Sunday's filed could turn out to be the biggest hero? Whether or not that comes to fruition, there is one thing to note. If James has fresh legs and is sharp, he could cut the defense like a knife, and the Steelers could be facing the blade of the Cardinal's "Edge."
By David G. Ortega