TEMPE, Ariz. -- Does Edgerrin James have anything left?
That question has hounded the Arizona Cardinals running back all season, the noise of it becoming louder and louder when the NFL's active rushing leader was sent to the bench earlier this season.
"My game doesn't change," James said. "I have a game that is really simple: north and south, try not to lose yards and keep going forward. I've led the league in rushing and my longest run was 30 yards. All of a sudden I don't have big runs and I can't run the same. But if you look at the way I've always run, it's the same way. I'm not really worried about what someone else says."
OK, if he's not worried about what we say, here goes: He isn't the same back he was five years ago. Not close. And that back was never a big-play runner anyway.
The recent emergence of James in the playoffs has many speculating that he's back to being the Edgerrin James of his Indianapolis Colts days. That is the wrong impression.
James isn't the best runner on the Cardinals' roster. It's rookie Tim Hightower, the man who took his job.
When the Cardinals play the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game, I expect it will be Hightower who makes the big runs, even though James is scheduled to start. It will be Hightower who will do the carrying in the second half when the Cardinals have a lead.
Playing running back in the NFL is a cruel way to make a living. You get beat up and you always have someone younger and faster there to take your job. Runners hit the league going all out, the easiest position to play as a rookie, and then all of a sudden after a couple of seasons somebody comes in and takes your spot, a player like you once were.
Good runners roll into the NFL each and every April and then in September we see that youth taking the ball and running right in the hearts of fantasy-league owners -- and taking jobs of aging veterans.
When the Cardinals benched James for Hightower against the St. Louis Rams in early November, James had no carries that day while Hightower ran for 109 yards and a touchdown. That led to James spending a good deal of time the remainder of the regular season watching the younger back carry the football.
It was a frustrating time. James wanted to be traded. There was talk of friction between James and Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, which both have denied.
|Edgerrin James has used his extra bench time to work on sideline etiquette. (AP)|
Understanding how James could be frustrated is easy. James was signed by the Cardinals are their marquee free agent in 2006, a signing many in Arizona said was made to appeal to the fan base in order to sell tickets in the team's new stadium, which opened that season. He was coming from a winning program in Indianapolis, but the Colts knew the tread was wearing thin.
Three years later, James is worried more about sideline etiquette than carrying the football.
"It's kind of boring," James said. "You get bored standing around. You learn sideline etiquette. You know when to get up, when to move, when to stand and it's a new world, but it's just part of it."
He laughed. That's James. He has always been a friendly, easy-going player, even if he shies away from the media. When he does talk, it's candid and refreshing. And funny. As he talked about his time on the bench, you couldn't help but laugh. He offered more tips on sideline etiquette.
"It's depending on who's coming to the heater," he said. "If Fitz (Cards receiver Larry Fitzgerald) is coming to the heater, you have to move over. Some guys have to move since I've got a little seniority."
Whisenhunt put James back into the lineup against the Seattle Seahawks in the season finale and James rushed for 100 yards. He has had 136 yards in two playoff games. Some say he's the old Edge.
But while he looked good in the NFC wild-card game victory over the Atlanta Falcons, team sources say he reverted back to some bad habits against the Panthers. He missed holes. He didn't plant and cut the way the team wants. He missed some potentially big runs.
Then again, that's James. He has always been a plodder, never a long-run guy. As one writer in Indianapolis put it: James can turn a 3-yard run into a 5-yard run, but he also turns 60-yard runs into 5-yard runs.
In his career, James has 45 runs of 20 yards or more and six of 40 yards or more. Of those 51, all but five came when he was with the Indianapolis Colts. In his three seasons with the Cardinals, James has five runs of 20-plus yards and none of 40 or more. He hasn't had a run of 40 or more since 2004 with the Colts.
The Cardinals made the right decision to send him to the bench. And I have an idea that James won't be the key runner come Sunday, especially when you consider those numbers.
Does Edgerrin James have anything left?
To be blunt: Not much. It's Tim Hightower's time now -- even if James teased some in the playoff opener.