OH, MY," said the statuesque woman with the thick Dominican accent, gesturing toward the dreadlocked football star across the dinner table. "It seems like everywhere he goes, people want a piece of him." He was Edgerrin James, the Indianapolis Colts' All-Pro running back, and the people were, for the most part, some of the New South's finest single women. And on a recent sultry Friday night, in a packed Atlanta restaurant, James was a man in demand. ¬∂ If only things were going that way for him in the NFL. James, who has been seeking a lucrative, long-term deal since February, sipped his virgin strawberry daiquiri and cringed at the comparison. Coming off a season in which he rushed for 1,548 yards, led the AFC with 2,031 yards from scrimmage and helped the Colts win the AFC South, James, whose contract expired after 2004, sought the same type of deal that the team had given quarterback Peyton Manning in March 2004 and wideout Marvin Harrison last December. Instead the Colts balked, using the franchise-player tag to retain James for 2005, but gave him permission to try to arrange a potential trade. Five months later, with Indy players due to report to training camp this week, James still pines for action like a date seeker who's been ignored on match.com.
"The whole thing is crazy," James says. "It's like everybody around the league is sending out this lie that you can win without a big-time running back, or that we're easily replaceable. I look at what I did last year--and all that I've done in the league--and think, What more can I do? It's a bunch of b-------."
James isn't the NFL's only rebuffed runner. Another Pro Bowl back, the Seattle Seahawks' Shaun Alexander, was tagged a franchise player and shopped after a 1,696-yard rushing season. Meanwhile Travis Henry, a former Pro Bowl back with the Buffalo Bills who lost his job to Willis McGahee last October after having rushed for 2,794 yards over the previous two years, spent most of the off-season in limbo before the Tennessee Titans acquired him on July 18 for a 2006 third-round draft pick.
Since unfettered free agency began in 1993, there hasn't been a worse time to be a big-time ballcarrier. "Not a lot of teams need running backs right now," Houston Texans general manager Charley Casserly says, "and there's a belief that you can win without a Pro Bowl back and invest your [salary-]cap dollars elsewhere. An accumulation of good young runners has put guys like Edgerrin James and Shaun Alexander on an island."
Granted, it's more Fantasy Island than Survivor--James, for example, stands to collect a one-year tender of nearly $8.1 million in 2005, and he'll get another $1 million if he rushes for 1,400 or more yards. His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, points out that even if James doesn't get the incentive, he will be the "highest-paid running back in NFL history for a season, so please don't cry for him." James plans to report to camp, though he doesn't expect to make the trip to Japan for the Aug. 6 preseason game against the Atlanta Falcons. "The closest I'm going to get to Tokyo," James insists, "is Benihana."
Alexander, due a one-year tender of $6.32 million, most likely will not report to camp, though the sides have reopened talks on a long-term deal; in early July he told The Seattle Times that returning to the Seahawks under those terms is "out of the question." Henry got a restructured contract in the wake of his trade to the Titans, calling the chance to return to the state where he starred in college (at Tennessee) "a dream come true." However, before the deal Henry said, "It's been really interesting, with the caliber of running backs that are available, that teams aren't jumping to snap us up. It's a cutthroat business, man. Every time we carry the ball, we've got 11 guys trying to get us, and even if we prove ourselves, teams still treat us as if we can be easily replaced."
Whether this is the start of a troubling trend for premier backs remains to be seen. An executive for one NFL team, citing James (six NFL seasons) and Alexander (five), says there is "no proven track record that guys with that type of tread are ever worth the big dollars. Remember, the signing bonus in a new long-term contract [essentially] means you own him for at least three years."
Here are the reasons why James and Alexander find themselves in this jam:
• The New Kid in Town Factor. Though predicting NFL success at running back is a tricky proposition, coaches and talent evaluators often become starry-eyed when scouting young ballcarriers--and never more so than last spring. For the first time three backs were among the top five selections in the draft: Auburn teammates Ronnie Brown (No. 2, Miami Dolphins) and Cadillac Williams (No. 5, Tampa Bay Buccaneers), and Texas's Cedric Benson (No. 4, Chicago Bears). The Arizona Cardinals (Cal's J.J. Arrington) and the Carolina Panthers (Louisville's Eric Shelton) used second-round picks on potential impact runners.
• The Mike Shanahan Factor. Since a series of injuries beginning in 1999 derailed the career of All-Pro back Terrell Davis, Shanahan, the Denver Broncos' coach, has plugged numerous rushers into his lineup with great success. He has traded the last two of the four 1,000-yard rushers from that group, Clinton Portis (to the Washington Redskins) and Reuben Droughns (Cleveland Browns), largely because of his belief that many backs can succeed in his system. "Denver ruined it for Edgerrin and those other guys," says Bears defensive end Adewale Ogunleye. "They got everyone else believing it was the system, that backs are interchangeable. That's crazy, but a lot of teams are thinking that way now."
• The Bill Belichick Factor. You've heard it before: Winner of three of the past four Super Bowls, Belichick, the New England Patriots' coach, has largely avoided giving big signing bonuses while building a roster of team-oriented players. After winning titles with Antowain Smith and Kevin Faulk as the primary running backs, the Pats before last season traded a second-round draft choice for Cincinnati Bengals All-Pro Corey Dillon, who agreed to a pay cut as part of the deal. (After rushing for 1,635 yards in '04 and helping New England win another title, Dillon was rewarded with an extension that guarantees him $10 million.)
• The Shelf-Life Factor. Like former Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, many general managers have a don't-trust-anyone-over-30 mentality when it comes to backs, because so many prominent ones have worn down at about that point in their careers. Thus even Alexander, who turns 28 on Aug. 30, and James, who turns 27 on Aug. 1, are deemed too old to take on as long-term cap risks.
Exposing James to the open market by making him the franchise player--another team could have signed him but would have had to give up two first-round draft picks or work out a deal with the Colts--seemed like a risky proposition given his importance to the team. Late last season, as Indianapolis was running up the fifth-highest scoring total in NFL history, coach Tony Dungy cited James as the key to the team's play-action attack; Manning, en route to a league-record 49 touchdown passes, voiced a similar sentiment. Since the start of the 1999 season, Indianapolis is 59-24 when James is in the lineup and 6-9 when he's not. Yet the gamble by Colts president Bill Polian has paid off, at least for this year. "We never discussed compensation [with another team] because no one ever called us about a trade," Polian said last week. "I felt that would be the way it would go, given all the talented backs in the draft. There's also the longevity issue."
Scoffs James, "That argument doesn't work anymore. Curtis Martin [of the New York Jets] led the league in rushing last year at 31. Look at what Jerome Bettis did for the Steelers [at 32]." It's no surprise, then, that James understands why Alexander (70 touchdowns since 2001) is taking such a strong stand, saying, "If I were getting $6.32 [million], I might sit too."
At least the Seahawks have reopened negotiations with Alexander. Polian says the Colts have no plans to do so with James and that Indy is no longer open to trading him. "Absolutely not," Polian says. "Edgerrin signed a [one-year tender] of his own free will. He's a Colt, and he's going to remain a Colt, and we're happy about it."
James figures he'll play a final year in Indy and then find happiness--and a fat contract--elsewhere in 2006. By then, he reasons, the amount of base salary the Colts would be required to offer him with a franchise tag would increase by 20%, making the resulting cap hit prohibitive and compelling the team to set him free, no strings attached. Of course, Polian was willing to tie up a huge chunk of cap dollars on James this off-season, something that irks the running back to no end: Had they lowered his cap number with a long-term deal, he feels, Indy could have signed impact free agents on defense rather than essentially standing pat. This failure to improve, James suggests, could trigger the Colts' rapid drop from the ranks of the NFL elite. "You know what? What's happening to me might be good," he says. "I might be getting the Martha Stewart treatment. It worked out for her--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."
Back at Shout, the Atlanta hot spot at which he had no shortage of suitors, James was still grousing about the dried-up running back market with Portis, his friend and fellow former University of Miami standout, when the dinner check arrived. Suddenly, all conversation ceased as into the room walked another James, but this one, LeBron, most certainly could not relate to the topic of discussion. "Let's get the hell out of here," Edgerrin said to Portis, laughing. "Let the groupies follow LeBron."
It didn't happen. As the two NFL players stepped out into the Hotlanta night, several young women trailed them.
"How long are you in town for?" one woman asked. "What are you doing later?" The night was young, but James expressed no interest, heading toward the garage where he and his friends had parked.
"Hey, where's the next spot?" the woman shouted before he disappeared. "Just tell me where you're going."
"I don't even know," James answered.