- Jeffri Chadiha, ESPN Staff Writer
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You could see his frustration when he pointed at a framed photo of himself in a Cardinals uniform and said the picture needed to change. You could see it when he found one of his Cardinals jerseys lying over an office chair and said the uniform was right where it needed to be -- near the trash can. And that bitterness surfaced again when James welcomed Cardinals safety and fellow Miami alum Antrel Rolle into the Hurricanes' weight room by shouting, "You're about to have Arizona all to yourself."
If you haven't noticed by now, James is really ready to leave Arizona. He already has told other media outlets that he wants to be released, and he is making even more noise now that the unrestricted free-agency period has started. ESPN.com's John Clayton reported Wednesday that James contacted Cardinals general manager Rod Graves on Tuesday night and pleaded for his release. James has one year remaining on a four-year, $30 million contract he signed as an unrestricted free agent on March 12, 2006.
In James' eyes, it's bad enough that he had to endure the worst individual season of his career -- one that included his being benched midway through the season -- even if it did end with the Cardinals' reaching the Super Bowl. Now he's watching the open market fly by without any opportunity to see what value he might have to other teams.
But as difficult as that has been for James, he knows he has to be patient. He understands the Cardinals need to consider all their options at this stage, but he also stresses that he had a mutual agreement with the team when the season ended, one that revolved around his eventual departure.
"I never try to blame anybody for [the current situation] because at the end of the day, I made the decision to go there in the first place," said James, who left the Indianapolis Colts after seven productive seasons -- including four Pro Bowl selections -- to join the Cardinals.
"The only thing I don't agree with is holding on to me. That's not fair to me. But I also know that while I may have missed some opportunities, I've always found a way to wind up on top."
That is the key message James, who turns 31 in August, wants to deliver to the NFL. His career isn't dead yet, and he's not about to start fretting about the possibility that he'll be the next 30-something running back to find himself unwanted by other teams (think Shaun Alexander). As far as James is concerned, he still has plenty of time to prove that his career-low 514 yards in 2008 had more to do with poor coaching than a mercurial decline in his skills. In other words, he has more motivation now than at any other point in his 10-year career.
That is one reason James was training at such a brisk clip during his 90-minute workout inside his alma mater's weight room Tuesday. Even though he'd been out partying until 5 a.m., he went through his squats, curls and bench press exercises with the same vigor that could be found in the current Hurricanes players who watched him from afar. James was just as eager to check in with Miami team doctor John Uribe, the man who repaired James' torn ACL during the 2001 season. James figures it is better to keep a closer eye on how his body is functioning now that he has reached the age of 30.
The bottom line is James knows he's facing the most critical offseason of his career. Sure, that knee injury was hard for him, but that's a different type of issue. James knew he could work his way back to a Pro Bowl level if he simply trained as hard as he always had. When Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhunt benched him, it was the first time James had been told he just wasn't good enough to be on the field.
Although James rebounded to help play a key role in the Cardinals' postseason run -- he ran for 236 yards on 61 carries during the playoffs -- some of the feelings from that humiliation still haven't subsided. He still remembers all the supportive messages he received at that time and all the ways he tried to cope. In fact, he laughed at the memory of sitting in a Miami nightclub during Arizona's bye week. He ran into Baltimore Ravens running back Willis McGahee, another former Hurricane who also had slipped to second-team status with his squad. The two men joked about whether they eventually would be relegated to scout-team duties, and that humor helped lift James' spirits.
[The situation in Arizona] was like somebody buying a computer just so they could play solitaire on it. Why not use me to the best of my abilities?
”-- Cardinals RB Edgerrin James, referring to how he was used in 2008
That's one thing you can say about James: His confidence has not waned. He didn't become the league's active career rushing leader by accident (he has 12,121 yards, which ranks him 11th in league history). He is held in high enough esteem that the Hurricanes' team meeting room in the football office now is dedicated to him (also thanks to a large donation). James is convinced other teams could use him better.
"People know what I'm about," he said. "[The situation in Arizona] was like somebody buying a computer just so they could play solitaire on it. Why not use me to the best of my abilities? I've had seasons where I've caught 60-plus passes, but I only caught 12 last year. It's not like I forgot how to catch."
James added that he's excited about the prospect of playing four or five more seasons, mainly because the game has changed noticeably since his rookie season in 1999. He likes the trend of teams splitting carries among running backs, and he's certain the league isn't nearly as brutal as it used to be. Gone are the days when he faced punishing hitters like Bryan Cox and Marvin Jones on a regular basis. Now James sees a league filled with defensive ends preoccupied with sacks, defensive backs focused on interceptions and a game so devoid of lethal blows that he refers to it as "finesse football."
But James also has another incentive to keep playing: unfinished business. As proof, he keeps a list on his BlackBerry of the runners who rank ahead of him on the league's all-time rushing list. When he pulled out the phone Tuesday, he noted that he needs 123 yards to surpass Marcus Allen and that 619 more yards this past season would have moved him into the top five. "I should've been number seven by now instead of number 11," said James, who rushed for 2,381 yards during his first two seasons in Arizona. "But I'm not worried. I'll get there."
That was James' way of saying people shouldn't be surprised if he finds a way to help another team win. Right now, he's so certain his Arizona career is over that he says the only way he'll be with that team next season "is by force." But James also isn't ready to say where he'd like to end up next. All he knows is that the worst season of his career is behind him and that there's no reason to think good times don't lie ahead.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.