- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- For an organization that usually plays it safe, it's strange but pleasing to see the Arizona Cardinals living on "the Edge." The Bidwill family, which has owned the Cardinals since 1932, always has been deliberate and conservative when it comes to spending money on players.
But the Bidwills showed their wild side with the signing of Edgerrin James, handing the former Colts running back a four-year, $30 million contract, including a $7 million signing bonus and a $4.5 million roster bonus. The wildness hasn't stopped. Edge's fun personality has infiltrated the locker room. James installed a TV set by his locker for his teammates. He persuaded the Bidwills to switch to black shoes, a campaign players had lost the past few years.
Although Arizona might have been a 2005 "sleeper" team that never woke up, the 2006 Cardinals have a buzz to them. Gone are the days of empty seats. A new stadium has produced a sellout of season tickets. The team not only grabbed headlines by signing James but also hit the lottery by getting Matt Leinart in the first round of the draft.
Leinart's contract holdout was a downer as the Cardinals opened camp, but James turned all the frowns into smiles. James is one of the NFL's unique characters. He kept the Colts locker room loose with his infectious personality. Most athletes would hold a grudge toward Indianapolis, which didn't attempt to re-sign him after his contract expired. James accepted it. In fact, he's having fun with it.
"I'm on the worst rushing team, so give me my props if we do well," James said with a good-natured laugh. "Put in the article that I'm a bad mother if we turn it around. Man, there's a lot of action. That's all you want. That's why you gamble because there's a lot of action."
Since his rookie season with the Colts, James understood the game he played. It's a game. But it's a business, too. While 1999 draft class member Ricky Williams lost millions on an incentive-laden contract, James was pulling down $7 million a year hitting performance escalator after performance escalator. He loved the action. His 9,226 yards in eight seasons is topped by only six other backs in NFL history. Colts quarterback Peyton Manning loved James for his running, catching and pass protection.
But for two years, James sensed his days with the Colts were numbered. His contract ran out in 2006. Sensing that he wouldn't be re-signed, James sold his home in Indianapolis last year and lived in a hotel. He never let it affect his performance or demeanor. Why? He loved the action.
"I already knew; I accepted it," James said about his departure. "I could have run for 2,000 yards, but it was expected. It's something I didn't mind. You go through, and the coach and everybody calls you MVP, the workhorse of the offense. You read all of that and then you ask, 'What's up?' It's a business. They say, 'You had an ACL.' Well, the dude you brought in [Joseph Addai] had an ACL [injury]. They have two backs there with an ACL. And it's not like I'm old. I'm just about to turn 28."
James turned 28 on Aug. 1, and he's having a happy rebirth-day. James looks great. He's thin. He's fit. He's running well. And the players on the Cardinals love him. They should. Their inability to run the football, especially in the red zone, forced them to settle for an NFL-high 43 field goals last season. At the same time, Arizona scored an NFL-low two rushing touchdowns.
"With the receivers we have on this offense, having a back like that makes us dangerous," wide receiver Anquan Boldin said. "When you have a 1,500-yard back, it's tough on defenses. He's good all around. He's good at picking up blitzes. He's good at catching the ball out of the backfield. He's good at running the zone plays. He knows how to set up blocks. He's an all-around back."
The statistics dictated the Cardinals needed some kind of a new edge to get over the top. Last season, they were eighth in the NFL on offense and eighth on defense but ended up winning only five games. Their inability to run the football killed them. It's difficult to get leads when you don't score touchdowns, and it's hard to hold on to the leads you do get without a running game.
"We'd get six and seven guys in coverage most of the time," Boldin said. "We'd move the ball well from 20 to 20 but couldn't convert in the red zone. If we could just get a defense into a Cover 2, we could just run the ball down their throat."
James is having a blast. He comes from a three-receiver offense in Indianapolis that set the standard for production to a three-receiver group in Arizona that is brimming with confidence. Larry Fitzgerald caught 103 passes for 1,409 yards last season. Boldin had 102 catches for 1,402. Bryant Johnson, a 2003 first-rounder, caught 40 passes for 432 yards.
"They have some good players here, so it's going to be crazy, man, it's going to be crazy," James said. "It's fun. I'm on a good offense. I'm going into a new stadium, a new team. It's fun being the underdog. That's the fun. It's the action."
The first day of camp was a big adjustment because coach Dennis Green ordered some running plays in which a fullback did the lead blocking. James wasn't used to that. In Indianapolis, he ran out of mostly one-back sets. He had to go back to his college days to remember having a fullback in front of him. James' biggest challenge was making sure his positioning in the backfield was right.
"Edgerrin is 27 going on 28, but he's a young 27 or 28," Green said. "Even though he's carried the ball a lot, he takes great care of himself. He's in great physical condition. You look at him last year. He rushed for 1,500 yards in roughly 14 or 15 games. He knows the game, and he's a great analyst of the game."
"With the receivers we have on this offense, having a back like that makes us dangerous. When you have a 1,500-yard back, it's tough on defenses. He's good all around. He's good at picking up blitzes. He's good at catching the ball out of the backfield. He's good at running the zone plays. He knows how to set up blocks. He's an all-around back."
Anquan Boldin, Cardinals wide receiver
Green anticipates an overhaul of the defenses the Cardinals face. Too often last season, the Cardinals faced defenses that committed only six players to stop the run but couldn't take advantage of it. With James, the Cardinals know they will have at least seven run defenders, which will create single coverage for two of the three wide receivers. If eight defenders stay in the box to try to stop James, all the receivers will have single coverage.
Quarterback Kurt Warner knows good offenses. He grew accustomed to that in St. Louis when he was winning MVPs and his offense was scoring 500 points a season. What Warner appreciates more than anything else, though, is James' personality.
"The first thing is that you just like his personality," Warner said. "It's different. I think because of the respect he has from what he has done in the league, he came in and broke down barriers that were in the organization. He has his fun-loving attitude. He put the TV in the locker room. He talked them into letting us wear the black shoes. It just seemed like, before that, the guys here were kinda on eggshells. There was a certain way things were done. Coach Green tried to bring some different guys, but I think you kinda fall into that mold being here a number of years that this is the way it's done here."
James changed that. Warner calls it a mental edge James contributes. He works hard, but he has fun. Players gravitate to him.
Warner likes the James addition because it reminds him a lot of his days with Marshall Faulk. Warner and Faulk worked together long enough that they trusted each other. Faulk recognized defensive weaknesses so well he was a second set of eyes for Warner in the backfield. James does the same.
James knows he'll have to carry a good portion of the offense on his shoulder pads. He likes the action with the Cardinals. Despite his success with the Colts, he still feels he has to prove himself, which is no problem.
"You can't say my age is the problem because I'm just turning 28," James said. "You can't talk about me being on the injury list where I have this or that or that I'm slowing down. That's where you are looking for excuses."
Now, James is the edge the Cardinals hope can bring them a winning season.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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