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BEST ROUND EVER IN PRIMETIME
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Last week, we concluded part one of our draft countdown series, focusing on the top ten draft busts of all-time for the . Between today and Thursday, April 28th, we will focus on the top ten best draft picks for the Colts.
Articles in this series will likely be a bit shorter than the previous because, I think, most of the players I will mention as 'the best' are players you readers know. With the 'busts,' I'm fairly certain many of you had no idea who Leonard Coleman was. With this series, I've pretty certain you've heard of No. 10 on our list of the best draft picks: U. of Miami runningback Edgerrin James (Pick No. 4 overall in 1999)
Colts All-Time Best Draft Pick, No. 10: The Guy With The Dreds Who Was Better Than Ricky Williams
Back in 1999, everyone in the draft room was stunned when the 3-13 Indianapolis Colts used the No. 4 overall pick on someone other than Texas runningback Ricky Williams. Williams himself seemed to be the most upset, visibly shaking his head at Indy's choice while his 'agent,' rapper Master P, consoled him.
But, the reality is that the guy who was taken at No. 4 turned into a better overall player than the undependable Williams, whose career was marked with short moments of brilliance and long stretches of silliness.
"We had Edgerrin James graded ahead of Williams on our draft board, " then-Redskins General Manager Charley Casserly said. "I know a lot of teams did."
Clearly, the Colts were one of those teams.
Edgerrin James was a stellar back out of the University of Miami. With the Colts refusing to re-sign Marshall Faulk to a big contract in 1999, it only made sense to draft a back who was, in many ways, just as good as Faulk. Colts president Bill Polian traded Faulk to the St. Louis Rams for a second round pick (No. 36) and a fifth rounder (No. 136). He then used the No. 4 pick on James, and the results were pretty damned good for the Colts.
Now, before we get into James' career, one cannot discuss his successes without talking about the man who will forever be linked to James: Marshall Faulk.
After his trade to the Rams, Faulk went on to have a one of the greatest seasons ever for a running back. He ran for 1,381 yards and caught 1,048 yards worth of passes that year (2,429 total yards from scrimmage) as the Rams won Super Bowl XXXIV.
Now, at the time, Polian was widely criticized for making this trade, and rightly so.
I know some Colts fans religiously defend this trade, but the reality was it simply wasn't necessary from a talent perspective. The previous year (1998), Faulk had earned 2,227 total yards for the Colts, working with a then-rookie quarterback named Peyton Manning. Manning and Faulk had developed a good rapport (both are from Louisiana), and with the development of wide receiver Marvin Harrison, it wasn't the Colts offense that was the problem in their 3-13 season of 1998.
It was the defense, ranked 29th in the league and surrendered 28 points per game.
In fact, the defense was so bad that year it prompted then-head coach Jim Mora to, essentially, call out the obvious. At the 1:50 mark in the video below is one of Mora's truly epic press conference rants during the 1998 season, where he states, quite eloquently:
We stink on defense. We stink!
Now, it's no secret that, despite the fact that he was the best player on the team in 1999, Mora and Polian did not care to for Marshall Faulk. It had nothing to do with his talent. The dislike was personal. The brain trust did not care for Faulk's entitled sense of himself and seemingly laissez-faire attitude towards winning and losing. Mora and Polian were determined to change the culture in Indy, and Faulk was very much a part of the losing stench that had resulted in six total wins over two seasons.
But, had they kept Faulk, used the No. 4 overall pick to take a defensive player (like tackle Anthony McFarland or cornerback Champ Bailey), it's very likely the Colts would still have gone 13-3 in 1999. They probably would have won a playoff game or two. What would not have happened is the Rams blowing through the NFC with their 'Greatest Show on Turf.' No Kurt Warner miracle. No Dick Vermeil holding up the Lombardi. No Mike Martz as head coach in 2000.
In fact, what might have happened was Super Bowl XXXIV between the Indianapolis Colts and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers coached, at that time, by Tony Dungy.
But, despite the fact that the Faulk trade probably wasn't necessary for the Colts to win, that should take nothing away from Edgerrin James, the man drafted to replace Faulk. While Faulk was scampering for 2,429 total yards from scrimmage in 1999 for the Rams, James was earning 2,139 total yards of his own. Edgerrin rushed for 1,553 yards his rookie year and scored 17 total TDs (13 rushing, 4 receiving).
In his second season, James ran for 1,709 yards (4.4 yards a carry), 2,303 total yards from scrimmage, and scored 18 TDs. In his entire career, the most yards Faulk ever rushed for was in a single season was 1,382.
But, because the Colts defense was still terrible, James' stellar first two season weren't given the attention they deserved because the Colts simply could not win in the playoffs. I don't care how good your team's QB, RB, and WRs are. If your defense is giving up 258 rushing yards in a playoff game (as the Colts did to the Dolphins in 2001), you will not win in post-season play. And when a team does not win in post-season play, they are tagged a failures. That is the reality of pro football everyone, and from 1999-2002, the Colts were correctly deemed underachieving failures despite making the playoffs three out of four years.
The 'tragedy' of James' career happened in 2001. Once again, the defense was awful, posting some of the worst numbers for a team in NFL history for a single season (31st in points allowed, surrendering an astounding 30 points per game). They allowed 486 points that season. With the defense reeling, the pressure was on Manning and James to shoulder the load.
But, in Week Six against the Kansas City Chiefs, James went down with a knee injury. He tore ligaments in his knee, and his 2001 season was over. Prior to the injury, James was averaging 4.4 yards a carry. Had he continued on his pace, James would have run for 1,760 yards and caught 512 yards worth of passes.
James never fully recovered from that injury in KC. He was still a dominant back after his rehab, but the speed and quickness which had marked his first three seasons was gone. It was replaced by a more patient style of running. If anything, James' greatness might best be defined by how well he played after his injury. He fully returned to form in 2003, and for three seasons (2003-2005) he averaged 1,400 rushing yards and 10 TDs a season.
Even after he left the Colts and signed with the Arizona Cardinals in 2006, James was still a force at running back. He averaged 1,200 yards per season in 2006 and 2007. In 2008, though he was clearly on the downside of his career, he was a critical part of the Cardinals (quarterbacked by one-time Rams quarterback Kurt Warner, the man who helped Faulk win a Super Bowl) nearly winning Super Bowl XLIII. Had the Cards defense not choked in the final seconds, James would have two Super Bowl rings (he received an honorary one from the Colts after their run in 2006), and his status as a first ballot Hall of Famer would have been cemented.
Alas, the Cards didn't win, and because the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee is full of moronic buffoons who know nothing about football, the Hall of Fame status of James is 'debatable' for some.
For his career, James rushed for 12,246 yards, caught for 3,364 yards (15,610 total yards), scored 80 rushing TDs (91 total), and was an integral part of the rebuilding of two NFL franchises. Now, post these numbers next to Faulk's: 12,279 rushing, 6,875 receiving, 107 total TDs.
Now, where Faulk blows James away is the receiving yardage, but that is a product of the Rams offense from 1999-2004. They would use Faulk as a WR in several packages. Indy never used James that way even though his receiving skills were excellent. Also, factor in that James earned all these numbers despite a serious knee injury.
On the NFL's all-time rushing list, Marshall Faulk is No. 10. Edgerrin James is No. 11. Behind both men are Marcus Allen (No. 12), Franco Harris (No. 13), Thurman Thomas (No. 16), and O.J. Simpson (No. 18). This year, Marshall Faulk will be enshrined in the HoF in his first year of eligibility. If Edgerrin James is not voted into the HoF in his first year of eligibility, I'm pretty much going to stop paying attention to Canton as a place that truly honors great football. It should be about the numbers and the achievements (which James has in spades). It should have voting transparency and accountability.
It should NOT be a popularity contest.
It SHOULD have a bust of Edgerrin James.
Again, though the Colts could have become a winner without having to draft him, it really is hard to imagine the team we all know and love without Edgerrin, smiling his gold-toothed smile; showcasing a passion for life and football that was infectious to all his teammates.
When one drafts a back No. 4 overall, one should expect great production. The Colts not only got that production from James, they got a high character player who just made you enjoy watching football. It was a true pleasure to see him play, and though I think the drafting of Joseph Addai and the development of Dominic Rhodes helped transform Indy into a Super Bowl champion, both those men will tell you to your face that it was Edgerrin James that blazed the trail for their success.
The same could be said for the Colts franchise in general. Guys like me can speculate about whether the Faulk trade was necessary, but the stats show that Indy did not start becoming 'great' until James strolled into town, dred locks and all, and into the hearts of all Colts fans.
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