INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The first impression was all Peyton Manning needed.
“Certain guys make this incredible impression on you,’’ he said.
Marvin Harrison was one of those guys. So was Edgerrin James.
Something of an under-the-radar name as the 1999 NFL Draft approached – he wasn’t, you know, Ricky Williams – James missed the bulk of his first minicamp while his rookie contract was being hammered out. The business side of things were finalized two days before the Indianapolis Colts’ second preseason game in ‘99, so his NFL debut would come Aug. 21 at New Orleans.
Manning remembered. And chuckled.
“I can remember it like it was yesterday,’’ he said. “We started Keith Elias to kind of ease Edgerrin along, ‘Boy, he’s not ready to go.’’’
That changed on the third series.
“Edgerrin goes out and does what he does,’’ Manning said.
The NFL’s first glimpse of James consisted of 10 carries, 77 yards and 16- and 12-yard touchdowns when he bounced runs outside and outran the Saints to the end zone.
“Jim Mora said, ‘All right, that’s our guy. That’s why we made him the fourth overall pick in the draft,’’’ Manning said.
“He was awesome.’’
One play remains indelibly etched in Manning’s mind.
“We ran a little draw play,’’ he said, “and there was a defensive tackle that just showed up in the backfield; somebody whiffed on their block.
“And Edgerrin spun away from him with a move I had never seen before and somehow got 12 yards. I remember my offensive lineman, Adam Meadows, say, ‘Boy, this is going to be a lot of fun.’ I felt like telling him, ‘All right, it’s OK to block somebody, too. Don’t count on him doing that every single time.’
“But Edgerrin did that a bunch.’’
From the very start.
It was similar to Manning’s first impression of Marvin Harrison. It came in the 1998 preseason opener at Seattle. Manning’s first pass as the first overall pick in the draft and new face of the franchise was a short slant that Harrison turned into a 48-yard touchdown.
“Same deal,’’ Manning said.
Harrison’s legacy was crystalized in bronze when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2016. He was joined that year by Tony Dungy.
Now, James finds himself on the cusp of joining them. Again.
The Class of 2020 will be debated and determined Saturday in Miami by the 48-member Selection Committee, of which I’m a member. The list of Modern-era candidates includes 15 individuals, and a maximum of five will be selected and announced that evening during the NFL Honors awards show.
James is in his sixth year of eligibility and is a finalist for a fourth year. He reached the final 10 for the first time last year.
Is this the year? His year?
“It really should be,’’ Dungy insisted.
But spend a few minutes talking with James and it doesn’t take long to realize his patience is wearing thin. He wonders why we’re still having this discussion. He believes he did enough to warrant inclusion before now.
“There are so many factors that are away from just playing ball,’’ he said. “I guess you just have to wait your turn. That’s out of my control.
“Whatever happens on that front is what’s supposed to happen.’’
Again, James steadfastly believes his 11-year career speaks for itself, and speaks loudly. Among his highlights:
- Since the 1970 merger, he’s one of three players to lead the NFL in rushing in his first two seasons. The other two are first-ballot Hall of Famers: Eric Dickerson and Earl Campbell.
- Seven players have won consecutive league rushing titles since ’70 – James and six first-ballot Hall of Famers. The last to win back-to-back titles: LaDainian Tomlinson, another first-ballot guy, in 2006-07.
- Only four players have rushed for at least 1,500 yards four times. The exclusive list consists of James and three first-ballot Hall of Famers: Barry Sanders, Walter Payton and Dickerson.
- James generated two 1,500-yard seasons before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in week 6 at Kansas City, and two after the injury. It’s worth noting he rushed for 8,322 yards post-ACL, which would rank 42nd all-time and exceed the career totals of more than a dozen Hall of Fame backs, including Terrell Davis, Lenny Moore, Gale Sayers and Leroy Kelly.
- Only three players rank among the top-13 in rushing in the regular season and the postseason; James and two more first-ballot backs, Emmitt Smith and Tony Dorsett.
- James ranks 13th in career rushing and 16th in total yards from scrimmage.
It bothers James that too often the selection process seems to be a popularity contest. He hasn’t sought any attention following his retirement after the 2009 season. He has focused on being a doting father to his six children, which was one of the overriding factors in his decision to walk away from the NFL rather than stick around and add to his stat line.
There are no second thoughts – no regrets – for how James handled his career, or the end of it.
“As long as I did everything the right way, I’m fine with it,’’ he said. “As long as I was true to myself. The more I look at it, I know I did it the right way. I stayed out of everybody’s way. I’ve got kids in college. They’re growing and good.’’
It was mentioned James did things “his way.’’
“Yeah, Frank Sinatra,’’ he said. “I tell my family that’s my funeral song . . . My Way. That’s been my message from Day 1. That will always be the thing that drives me forward or keeps me going. I’m going to stay true to myself.
“I’m going to go out like that.’’
It’s highly debatable whether Modern-era candidates boost their selection possibilities this week by being visible on TV or making the rounds on Radio Row in Miami. James has little interest in doing either.
“I would never go out there and politic for something. That’s not me,’’ he said. “That kinda compromises who you are.
“If I get (to the Hall of Fame), I want to get there based on being me.’’
Manning couldn’t resist noticing James’ greatness. Often, the preoccupation with what his running back was doing would impact Manning’s mechanics and draw the ire of his coach.
“My coach used to get mad at me because I wouldn’t carry out my fakes on certain run plays,’’ Manning said. “My reasoning was I wanted to watch Edgerrin James run the ball. You hear about players wanting to watch other players play. There’s a famous clip of Randy Moss on the sideline getting up on the bench because he said he wanted to watch Brett Favre play.
“Well, I wanted to watch Edgerrin James play. I had a front-row seat. That says a lot about how special of a player he was.’’
To make room for James, the Colts traded Marshal Faulk to the St. Louis Rams.
“Just think, they traded Marshall Faulk because they were going to get this guy,’’ said cornerback Champ Bailey, a member of the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2019. “What kind of pressure is that? The longevity and the productivity . . . the dude was a beast.
“He’s one of the best I’ve seen.’’
James joined a Colts offense that was loaded: Manning, Harrison, Marcus Pollard, Ken Dilger, Terrence Wilkins, Tarik Glenn, Steve McKinney, Meadows. Reggie Wayne joined the mix in 2001.
“We all benefitted from each other. There’s no doubt about that,’’ Manning said. “We all had the same work ethic.’’
James injected a relentlessness to the offense. He wore down defenses, and created more opportunities for the Manning-led passing game.
Remember the 2004 shootout with Favre and the Green Bay Packers? The Colts pulled away 45-31, and it began with 22 consecutive Manning passes.
“The reason we did that is they came into the game saying, ‘We have to stop the run,’’’ Manning said. “We decided we were not going to beat our heads against the wall. Let’s come out and throw the ball and try to see if that will change what they do.
“Usually you throw enough and hurt them bad enough and they’ll play some softer coverage. But they never got the message. They were so adamant about stopping Edgerrin.
“There’s no question the success Marvin and Reggie (Wayne) had and the passing that I had had a great deal to do with the presence of Edgerrin James back there in the backfield. Having 32 back there was a big part of it.’’
If this is Edgerrin James’ time, the timing is perfect. Everything will unfold on his home turf. He grew up in Immokalee – about 2 hours to the northwest of Miami – and emerged as a first-round NFL draft pick at the University of Miami.
Wayne also is among the 15 Modern-era candidates and like James, was a standout at The U.
“That would be pretty dope,’’ James said. “I’m pulling for Reggie.
“If it happens, you make the most of it. If it doesn’t happen, you don’t get too down about it. I’m not going to get all gung-ho because every year it’s the same routine.’’