For months, Arizona strayed from James, the high-profile free-agent acquisition from Indianapolis in 2006 who was supposed to bring some credibility to a franchise always in search of it. After seven games this season, though, the Cardinals began starting rookie Tim Hightower in his place. But really, all they did was put a body in the backfield and throw the ball like an Arena League team.
The strategy looked wise as the Cardinals clinched a playoff berth by winning the weak NFC West. They thought they'd arrived. But their overconfidence got them away from what they did best -- win. It also got them away from a player they needed most.
So in a regular-season finale against Seattle that meant nothing in the record books but meant everything in regaining their early-season swagger, the Cardinals gave James, 30, the ball. He gave them 100 yards, a needed dose of experience and a victory.
And James delivered again. He gained 73 yards on 16 carries and showed some shake and some toughness, moving the chains and allowing Arizona to milk the clock late in defeating the Falcons 30-24. He also outgained Atlanta's Michael Turner (42 yards on 18 carries).
He didn't gloat afterwards or give the ol' "I told you so." He'd been fairly professional to this point about his disappointment at being shelved -- he repeatedly has said he doesn't want to return to the Cardinals next season -- and didn't want to start any stuff after this emotional victory.
"That goes back to how I was raised, with my mama, my grandmother, uncles -- my family," James said about not becoming a distraction after he was demoted. "I learned you've got to take the good with the bad. Whenever things are going good it's easy to stand up in front of everybody and get patted on the back. When things are not going as well, how do you respond? How do you react? I am not going to embarrass my family. I would never embarrass my mama. I just sat there and rolled with it."
He rolled with things then. He's on a roll now.
On Arizona's first possession against Atlanta, the Cardinals threw the ball three times, then punted. On their next possession, they gave James the ball three times and made consecutive gains of six, nine and six yards. The drive ended a play later when quarterback Kurt Warner handed the ball to James, who flipped it back to Warner on a flea-flicker. Safety Lawyer Milloy had bitten on the run action and was late to help cornerback Chris Houston as Warner lofted a beauty of a deep ball down the left side to Larry Fitzgerald for a 42-yard touchdown play.
Suddenly, thanks to James, diversity was back in Arizona's offense.
"We wouldn't have been able to do that if we weren't able to run the ball effective early," Fitzgerald said. "Edge did an outstanding job coming downhill. Leaning on Edge, with the playoff experience he has from Indianapolis, it was great to have a guy with that kind of experience we could lean on."
"I don't think I have to prove anything," said James, who has rushed for 12,121 yards and 80 touchdowns in the regular season in his 10-year career. "Just look at what I've done in my career. There is no secret (about) what type of runner I am. I am going to run my game. That is what I train for. Finally, I was put in a position to actually do that, and that's what I always do. I always play and try to get those tough yards and wear a defense down."
And wear the Falcons' defense down he did. Though the Cardinals only managed 12 rushing yards on six carries in the fourth quarter, what James had done earlier kept the Falcons' safeties in the box and Atlanta in its base 4-3 defense. With the Falcons not using their nickel sets, Warner was able to complete eight of nine passes for 82 yards, including two for first downs on the final drive that ultimately allowed Warner to kneel four times and run out the clock.
An Arizona crowd that never had experienced a playoff game in the desert went nuts. James was a hero among his teammates in the locker room. Players and coaches credited him for showing the heart and toughness that inspired others to raise their level of play.
"I got a good relationship with all the guys," James said. "We continued to talk when everything was going on. They were always in my corner, and we always supported each other. If I could help, I would help, no matter what the situation was."
Whisenhunt said James has always been in the plans, and now that the team is in the playoffs, it's his time to play his role. It could be an even more important role next week, because wide receiver Anquan Boldin suffered a hamstring injury while scoring on a 71-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter, and his status for next weekend's game is questionable.
While James was riding the wave of positivity following Saturday's victory, he also was introspective about where he is in his career. It's how players who are nearing the end often view things. His take explains an anguish that maybe only a Super Bowl appearance could placate.
"I worked so hard this offseason, and you're expecting to build on the previous year, and you go in this different direction," James said. "You're like, 'Man I wish I would have known this some months earlier.'
"But this is was where we're at. Before the season I was like, 'I'm going to have my best year as a Cardinal.' We re-route, and that's when things [went] kind of crazy. I was like, 'I get to pass Jim Brown. I get to pass Tony Dorsett (in career rushing yards).' That's big. Jim Brown? Then, it's like everything was stopped. How do you respond? I just say I'm going to keep going to work and run its course."
James rushed for 514 yards on 133 carries this season, an average of just 10.2 attempts per game. All were career lows for a healthy Edge. Guys who've been as productive as James don't like being situational players -- except maybe this situation, where he's the designated playoff starter.
James wouldn't say if he might change his mind about staying in Arizona after this season. He does have a year left on his contract, but players of his age and salary typically are released or have their contracts re-structured.
For now, James simply wants to continue getting opportunities to run the ball. That's it.
"I just want to finish out strong and do whatever I can do to make the trip worthwhile," James said. "I was part of some good times out here. It's not all bad. When I look back on it, I can say I didn't do that bad a job by coming out here. I made some improvement to what was going on statistically, and I'm a part of the winning. I won't be mad about it."