Problems, problems. Not that Patriot running back Craig James was complaining—or his wife, Marilyn, either, despite the carefully lettered plaque in the family room of their Dallas home: WE INTERRUPT THIS MARRIAGE TO BRING YOU THE FOOTBALL SEASON. But there was this little matter of shelter, involving the closing on the new house in Dallas so Marilyn and the girls could move in; the need to get the old house in shape to put on the market; the quest for a room for Craig in Foxboro. Rent a house for January? "Ha!" the Jameses had said back in August. The last New England patriot to be called into action at that time of year was wintering at Valley Forge. "I said before the season that if we didn't make the playoffs this year, it never would be done," says the 25-year-old James. "I'd always heard about the talent on this team, but at the end of every year we seemed to blow up."
The Patriots changed that script this season. They got to the end and exploded. So did James, whose running down the stretch helped the Patriots control the ball and keep opposing quarterbacks off the field. In the last four games—the must-win regular-season finale against the Bengals and the three stunning playoff upsets of the Jets, Raiders and Dolphins—James ran for 400 yards. For the season he was the third-leading rusher in the AFC with 1,227 yards (263 carries, for a 4.7-yard average), the most yards gained by a Patriot running back since Jim Nance's 1,458 in 1966. And James's ability—or lack of it—to move the ball against a Chicago defense that made Bear meat out of running attacks this season may be the key to the Super Bowl; he was held by the Bears to five yards on seven carries in the second game of the season. James, however, doesn't necessarily see it that way. "As a fan, I've got to be sitting back, saying it's going to be a boring game," he says. "But we're going to surprise some people in the Super Bowl. We throw well against a blitz. And who knows? Nobody thought we'd run the ball against the Raiders, either."
Indeed, in the Patriots' 27-20 win on Jan. 5, James became the only rusher this season to go over 100 yards against the Raiders. A genuine triple threat, he was also the Patriots' leading receiver in that game (three catches for 48 yards) and completed an eight-yard pass to Tony Collins. That made him three for three as a passer this year; two of the throws were good for touchdowns. "Craig's an impact player," says Patriots backfield coach Bobby Grier. "He's probably broken as many big plays in the last year and a half as any back in football."
A sampling: A 73-yard run against St. Louis in 1984. A 65-yard TD run against Green Bay in the 1985 opener. A swing pass that James converted into a 90-yard touchdown against the Bears, the Patriots' longest play from scrimmage in their history and the lone bright spot in that 20-7 debacle in September. A 57-yard jaunt against the Jets on Nov. 24. "Craig's unique in that he has power inside but speed when he's in the clear," says Patriots quarterback Steve Grogan.
James has been turning it on for a good while. In his senior season (1978) at Houston's Stratford High, he set a Texas 4A record with 2,411 yards rushing and 35 TDs in 15 games, averaging a staggering 9.9 yards per carry. Stratford (now a 5A school) was undefeated that year, winning one of the country's most prestigious state high school championships before 40,000 people in the Astrodome. From a raft of scholarship offers, James chose SMU. "Everyone assumed that SMU boosters had matched [in under-the-table payments] what some of the other schools had offered," says James, referring to the Mustangs' reputation for recruiting violations. "It wasn't true. I was going to SMU if I'd had to report as a walk-on." Love conquers slush funds. James's high school sweetheart and future bride, Marilyn Arps, a year older, was already enrolled at SMU.
Also entering SMU's class of '83 was a young man named Eric Dickerson. Alternating at tailback in coach Ron Meyer's offense, James and Dickerson rushed for more than 8,100 yards in four years—4,450 for Dickerson, 3,742 for James. Dickerson added 190 yards in receptions; James 560. To boot, James was the NCAA's sixth-leading punter, with a 44.9-yard average his senior year, and he held the ball for placekicks. (A superb all-around athlete, James had turned down a pro baseball contract coming out of high school. His brother Chris, 23, is a promising centerfielder in the Philadelphia Phillies organization.) "From sophomore year on, Eric and I rotated every series," says James, who ran a 4.50 40 in college, compared with Dickerson's 4.45. "I'd start one game, he'd start the next. The coaches left it up to us, which never would have worked if we hadn't been good friends. We tried to keep it even. If Eric's series lasted eight plays and mine was two plays and a fumble, then I'd start the next series. One guy was always fresh. By the fourth quarter we had defenses pretty much worn out."
Dickerson finished his SMU career with 790 carries and a 5.6-yards-per-carry average. James lugged the ball 775 times for an average of 4.8. "Eric has a different gear than I do in the 100," James admits, "but it gave me a lot of confidence coming out of college, knowing I'd played with one of the greatest running backs ever."
James was the fourth player taken in the 1983 USFL draft, the first choice of the hapless Washington Federals, now the Orlando Renegades. "I flew out to pay them a courtesy visit, and the next thing I knew, I had signed," he says. "They got my curiosity aroused—birth of a new league and all—plus, I just couldn't turn down the money." Funds conquer love. James signed a four-year deal worth an estimated $2 million. "The only way I wouldn't have been paid was if I'd committed a felony. But I learned a lesson from that experience. There are more important things in life than money. I lost a lot of my love and desire for the game in that league."
Back-to-back 3-15 and 4-14 seasons will do that to a guy; James had lost only 11 football games all through high school and college. A number of those USFL drubbings were played before crowds smaller than those that had come out to see him in high school. James rushed for 823 yards on 202 carries his rookie year with the Feds, missing four games because of a back injury. Dickerson, meanwhile, had signed with the Rams and had begun tearing up the NFL. "I wanted to see how I would have done in the NFL," says James. "I missed the competition. You've got to remember I grew up with Cowboy blood in me. I still have it."
James strained a knee in the second game of the 1984 USFL season, and when it became obvious that his salary was a major drain on the struggling team's operating budget, the Federals and the Patriots started talking. New England's coach then was Ron Meyer, James's former SMU mentor, and on Meyer's advice the Pats had made James a seventh-round choice. Within two months an amicable agreement allowed the Federals to shed their financial obligation to James, and New England took over the contract. When the legal work was complete, James had become the first player to jump from the USFL to the NFL—onto a team whose starting halfback, Tony Collins, was coming off a Pro Bowl year. "I never would have done that if I hadn't had confidence in my ability," says James. "But I think most of the Patriots were curious to see if I was going to be the coach's boy, or what. Half of them liked Meyer, the other half hated him. I made a big effort to avoid even a simple conversation with the coach so no one would accuse me of currying favor."
It worked. No one accused James of playing, either. At least not until Meyer was fired midway through the 1984 season. In Raymond Berry's first game as head coach, James rushed for 79 yards on 10 carries—all in the second half—earning a starting spot for the last seven games of the season. He finished the year as the Patriots' top rusher, with 790 yards on 160 carries for a 4.91-yard average.
Berry changed New England's offense over the summer, putting James and Collins in the same backfield but asking James to do the bulk of the ball-carrying. "This was a turning-point season for Craig," says Berry. "It was his first chance to really participate in all facets of a pro offense—pass receiving, running, blocking. And his performance has reflected his talent—both are great. I think Craig's got it all ahead of him. There's just nothing he can't do."
Nice as it is to have a back who can break a long one, the bread and butter of any good running attack is the four-, five-and six-yard stuff between the tackles. James, who at 209 pounds is playing at his lightest weight since high school, loves it inside. "It's almost impossible to break a long run in the NFL unless guys are missing tackles," he says. "Consistency is more important, and that means moving the chains."
In the first six games of the season, with Tony Eason starting at quarterback, there was precious little moving of chains done by the Pats' offense in general and by James in particular. When Eason was injured and Grogan took over, James, who had been averaging just 49 yards and 11 carries a game, was called to the forefront. "Steve knew our linemen liked to play power football, liked to come off the ball and hit guys," says James, "so he called a lot of running plays. A lot of those had my number. Steve Grogan gave our offense an identity."
Says Grogan, "Craig said he needed the ball a bunch, so I thought I'd give it to him to see what he could do."
In the next six games "James averaged 18 carries and 92 yards a game as New England won them all, turning its season around. Identity established, the Pats didn't miss a beat when Grogan was injured in Game 12 and Eason returned. In the last seven games, including the playoffs, the coaching staff has continued to call James's number and Eason has been handing the ball to him an average of 22 times a game.
Will James be able to move the chains against the Bears, something Dickerson couldn't do? That just might happen if the Pats are first able to establish a passing attack. "The Bears almost force you to throw the football," says New England guard Ron Wooten, who came to James's rescue last week by offering him the guest room of his suburban Boston house. "It looks like we're going to have to change our personality a little bit. But once the game starts, you never know how it's going to workout."