INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – There remains an understated confidence to Edgerrin James. It was a trademark of his decorated seven-year relationship with the Indianapolis Colts and 11-year NFL career.
He has his priorities in order. Family – he’s the self-proclaimed Sugar Dad and dedicated role model to his six children – has replaced football. He’s committed to giving back to underprivileged youth through his Edgerrin James Foundation and other ventures.
This week, though, football once again has shouldered its way to center stage in James’ world.
He’s one of 15 modern-day finalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2018 for the second time in his four years of eligibility. Decision Day is Saturday in Minneapolis when the Selection Committee – I am one of 48 selectors – will determine the latest inductees. No more than five modern-day candidates make the cut.
James finds himself in an elite group that includes Ray Lewis, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens, Brian Urlacher, Kevin Mawae, Tony Boselli and Isaac Bruce. When the discussion rolled around to whether he belongs in their company, James paused. He then allowed the quiet confidence that followed him throughout his career to yield the floor to what he believes to be an unquestioned reality.
“It’s clear as day, man,’’ James said, quickly adding his Hall of Fame inclusion “should already have happened. What’s the running back position supposed to be about? Who’s done it better than me? I’m talking about everything that goes along with the position.
“I did everything at a high level. I mean, c’mon now. I did all three (running, catching the ball out of the backfield, blocking) at a high level. Ask anybody.’’
So we did.
Peyton Manning, James’ partner in crime against NFL defenses for those seven seasons, considers James “the best teammate I’ve ever had. He was never selfish. He never complained.’’
During the Manning-James era, the Colts were 77-35 and reached the playoffs six times. The only exception: 2001 when James missed the final 10 games with a knee injury. They ranked in the top 10 in total offense each season and top 4 in scoring in six of seven seasons.
During James’ seven seasons in Indy, no one in the NFL had more rushing yards (a team-record 9,226) and only Tiki Barber (with 12,181) had more total yards from scrimmage (12,065).
“Edgerrin was so dominant,’’ Manning said.
Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2017, and linebacker Zach Thomas routinely faced James, initially when the Colts and Dolphins were AFC East rivals. They share an up-close-and-personal opinion.
“If people say he wasn’t elite or point to the people he played with, well, they didn’t have to play against him and prepare for him,’’ Taylor said.
In seven games against Miami while with the Colts, James averaged 110.1 yards per game and 4.3 yards per attempt. Virtually all of the damage was delivered in the same manner: the vaunted stretch play.
“You knew when he got the ball what runs they wanted to run and you still couldn’t stop him,’’ Taylor said. “You know how helpless a feeling that is? It’s ridiculous.
“I’ll be danged if I wasn’t starting a team today if I wouldn’t want Edgerrin James back in his prime.’’
Thomas was the quarterback of the Dolphins defense, the middle linebacker who attacked everything – every running back – with aggression. In the days leading up to the next Colts game, Miami’s defensive focus certainly was aware of Manning and Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne.
“I’m telling you, without having that running game, they wouldn’t have been the same,’’ Thomas said. “We could have caused a lot of problems for Peyton if he hadn’t had Edgerrin.
“When you prepare for a game, everybody talks about the quarterback, but in the run game we never really talked about certain guys. When we faced the Colts, we talked about Edgerrin. There were only a handful of running backs we talked about.’’
In the erstwhile AFC East, it was the Jets’ Curtis Martin, Buffalo’s Thurman Thomas and James. Martin and Thomas have bronze busts in Canton, Ohio.
“Edgerrin James wasn’t just a great runner,’’ Thomas said. “He was the total package.’’
Jon Gruden Bill Parcells and Rex Ryan witnessed James’ impact from the opposing sideline or the broadcast booth. Each didn’t hesitate to further James’ Hall of Fame worthiness.
“I was taught running back was the only position that should be evaluated on production,’’ offered Parcells, a two-time Super Bowl-winning coach and member of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2013. “My criteria was I wanted my backs to run, block and catch. Quite frankly, there are quite a few (running backs) in the Hall of Fame who only did two of those, some of them only one.
“(James) would do everything. This guy was a productive player and he sustained it for a long time.’’
Gruden faced James twice while he was Oakland’s head coach, and endured 91- and 116-yard rushing games. He insisted the Colts’ success was a result of “that lethal combination of Manning and James. He was a three-down back. He could do it all.
“If you’re putting guys in the Hall of Fame at that position, how does he not get in there? Edgerrin was there a long time and I guarantee you the statistics on the back of his football card are pretty damned good.’’
Ryan’s long-time role as the Baltimore Ravens’ defensive coordinator included preparing for James’ influence in the Manning-led offense. He had decent success limiting James’ damage – 257 rushing yards, 324 total yards, one TD in four meetings – but still exited with a 1-3 record and immense respect for James.
There is a perception that James, his numbers aside, was just another very good running back.
“Oh, hell no, he’s not just another player,’’ Ryan argued. “He was special. How special was he? (The Colts) basically traded Marshall Faulk away for him.’’
Leading up to the 1999 draft, then-team president Bill Polian traded Faulk, at the time an offensive centerpiece and a member of the Class of 2011, to the St. Louis Rams. Polian used the fourth overall pick in the draft on Edgerrin James.
“They knew what they were doing,’’ Ryan said. “He’s one of the most complete backs in the history of the league. He was a great receiver as well. As a runner, he was an absolute nightmare.
“He made it damn near impossible to play those guys because not only was he an outlet for Peyton if everything else was taken away, he was a primary receiver as well. Anytime you tried a seven-man front on those guys, shoot, James would just blow right through you.
“Look at the numbers. This guy was absolutely special. He was hell on wheels.’’
In 1999-2000, James joined Dickerson and Campbell as the only backs in the Super Bowl era to lead the NFL in rushing in each of his first two seasons. He was averaging a career-best 110.3 yards in the first six games of ’01 before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee at Kansas City.
James reinforced Ryan’s “special’’ description with a productive post-ACL career. He rushed for 8,322 yards in 110 games – that ranks 42nd in NFL history – and twice eclipsed the 1,500-yard plateau.
“Imagine if I didn’t get hurt,’’ James said, who averaged 103.3 yards in 38 games before blowing out his knee. “Man, I would have destroyed this league.’’
Ryan seemed to agree.
“You would never know he had the that injury,’’ he said. “What did he lose? Nothing.
“He was like Superman. That’s what I remember about him.’’
While impressed with the body of work from his 11 seasons in the NFL, James is more pleased with the manner it was constructed.
“I’ve done everything my way,’’ he said. “I didn’t go around and politic and kiss nobody’s butt. I didn’t get in trouble. I did everything the right way.
“I showed people you can just be yourself and still can make it in this league. I did everything I had to do and did them at a high level.’’