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Is Arizona Cardinals running back Edgerrin James on the edge of stardom once again in time for the Super Bowl?

PHOENIX — The story seems all wrong. The casting is completely out of place. Someone has tinkered with the script.

Supporting role?

Edgerrin James doesn't do supporting roles. Does he?

The guy has star quality, okay? And if the Cardinals were ever going to make a Super Bowl run, it was going to be on Edge's legs. He was going to lead the turnaround. He was going to be the homecoming hero. Wasn't he?

Why, then, has James spent most of this season in the passenger's seat?

James was never destined to be a passenger, either. He was never meant to be a spare part, or a backup singer, or a supporting actor. After 12,000 yards, after a decade in the league, that should be obvious. Shouldn't it?

As it turns out, some things are harder than linebackers, and some assignments are tougher than third and 2. Just ask James, the guy with the front-burner resume and the back-burner of a season. The guy whose career is finally moving again.

As James comes back to his home state, he is one of the more compelling players in Sunday's Super Bowl. How much he has left, and how much of it he will show Sunday, will be one of the featured story lines of the week.

It can be a tough thing, exile. One day, James was a headline, and the next, he was on the sideline. The Cardinals benched him Nov. 2 in favor of rookie Tim Hightower — a younger, more explosive back — and for the next eight games, James carried the ball only 11 times. In three games, he didn't touch it at all.

For someone else, perhaps it would have been a maddening transition. After the Cardinals denied his request for release, James settled in and waited.

"The way I grew up, this was a piece of cake," said James, who returned to the starting lineup in the playoffs. "They say, 'We're going to sit you on the bench.' If I was someone who had it easy, someone who was given everything, I would probably complain and act up.

"I wasn't raised to act up. I have three brothers in prison because of the way they reacted."

James shrugs. He stands in front of his locker after the Cardinals had beaten the Eagles in the NFC title game. A large gold lion dangles from his neck, as if it, too, is roaring again.

"I wasn't benched because I couldn't play," he said. "Everyone knows that. It was like, 'The team is going in a different direction.' I said, 'Damn, I wish I knew that earlier.' But at the same time, I signed up for this. When you sign up for something, you either deal with it or you say, 'I can't take it.' "

Either that, or you bide a little time.

During the playoffs, the Cardinals rediscovered James, who seems to have rediscovered himself. In three victories, he has run 52 times for 203 yards. No, they are not staggering numbers, but considering that James didn't run that many times for that many yards over the final 11 games of the regular season, it's not bad. It beats keeping the punter company.

"In life you have to take the good with the bad. Everything's not always going to be good. Playing football has always been easy for me," James said Friday. "I never had to face any real adversity in football because I've always tried to outrun people and do everything the right way.

"This time, even though I took that same approach, we went in a different direction. It's not something that I'm going to sit up there and show off or try to be disruptive to the team. You have to go out and take it like a man. You have to take the good with the bad. When things aren't that good, I continued to come out here and tried to help Hightower and the other running backs and do as much as I could."

Still, he allows, "this has been a weird year."

According to Ken Whisenhunt, the return of James hasn't come as a surprise. At the time, the second-year coach suggested Arizona would need James before the season was complete.

"He's a good back," Whisenhunt said of the former Miami Hurricane who signed with Arizona in 2006 after seven seasons with the Colts. "He still doesn't agree with (being benched), but that's part of what makes Edgerrin the player he is. He has a lot to prove, and I think that's shown in his play."

Perhaps. Perhaps James is trying to prove Whisenhunt wrong. And perhaps he's trying to audition for next season's team, too.

Either way, the playoffs have his attention. A few weeks ago, he gave offensive coordinator Todd Haley a list of plays he liked to run. "When I got off the bench," James said.

The question remains: How much of James' considerable skills remain? It's hard to say. There for a while, it seemed as if the Hall of Fame voters were going to have to add up his numbers. Two more 1,000-yard seasons and James was going to be in the top five rushing all time. At 30, can he still get there? And if so, with whom?

Perhaps it shouldn't surprise anyone to hear James credit his tough upbringing to getting him through the tough moments. Hasn't it always?

Somewhere along James' path, you might have heard the story. Of how tough things were in Immokalee when he grew up. About how his father kept his distance. About how uncles ended up dead or drugged or in prison. About Christmases without presents and birthdays without notice. About the food stamps. About 16-hour days James spent loading watermelons into a truck to buy his first car.

Compared to that, what harm can a bench do to a guy?

Today, James comes back to his home state. Soon, he will have at least one more game in a Cardinals uniform. The world will be watching. Maybe another team, too.

For James, that has always been the lesson. Keep running, and the end of the story may be just fine.

He said it

Cutting Edge

Edgerrin James has never been one to mince words. A few of his gems:

• "I can't go through this again. I didn't come here to block. I'm not an offensive lineman." — on his displeasure with a reduced role with the Cardinals (2008)

• "It worked out for (Martha Stewart). She got five months in jail, a slap on the wrist, and she's still getting paid. The way I look at it, I've got five months to serve, too." — on wanting out of Indianapolis after the Colts slapped a franchise tag on him (2005)

• "You know what got me through college? It was the dollar, not the diploma. It was knowing that football would let me walk into that cafeteria one day and tell 'em to keep my mom's little ol' uniform and that little ol' check." — 2000 interview

• "What happened to the other one vote? It should have been 50." — jokingly inquiring why he got only 49 of the 50 votes when he was named 1999 NFL offensive rookie of the year

Is Arizona Cardinals running back Edgerrin James on the edge of stardom once again in time for the Super Bowl? 01/25/09 [Last modified: Monday, January 26, 2009 7:26am]

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