KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It was a locker, but it could have served as sort of an athletic confessional, because Edgerrin James was in a reflective mood Sunday afternoon, just moments after he and the Indianapolis Colts had put on an offensive clinic in dismantling the Kansas City Chiefs.
The game had pushed the Colts into Sunday's AFC Championship against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium, and that was great news for a franchise that had lost five straight playoff games before this season. But on a personal level, it was satisfying because James was here to say that he knows now that he didn't know everything he thought he knew coming out of the University of Miami.
Older plus wiser equals something very special for the Colts.
"I feel I'm a whole lot better and smarter," said James, whose two touchdowns and 125 yards on 26 carries were just one piece of the offensive juggernaut that overwhelmed Kansas City. "I'm so cool, calm, and relaxed, where before, after the game, I would be sore, I would be tired. Now, I have a better understanding of the game."
The education, he conceded, started in 1999. The Colts, who one year earlier had taken Peyton Manning with the No. 1 pick in the draft, had used the fourth choice to select James after his brilliant career with the Hurricanes. He possessed great talent, and there was an equal amount of cockiness, too, but during the course of that first season, James realized he had moved on to a more serious level of football.
"I went from the preseason when I was killing it, to the regular season and I said to myself, `Damn, they hit hard now,' and then I went to the postseason and I said, `Hey, they hit even harder here,' " said James.
There was a playoff game in his rookie year, the Colts coming off of a 13-3 campaign, and James was one of the crowd, feeling good about the way things had gone in his initial go-around in the NFL.
"We were talking as a team about how we were the best team and how we were scoring all these points [423, by far the best in the AFC], and Tennessee came in and . . ."
His voice trailed off as the memory of that season made him laugh out loud, the way you can laugh when you recall a learning experience that has paid dividends.
"And Tennessee came in and they were like, `We don't give a damn about nothing you've done,' and they were hitting and hitting and just showing us that all of that didn't mean nothing, that this was the playoffs."
After leading the league with 1,553 rushing yards that season, James rushed for just 56 yards on 20 carries in the playoff game as the Colts were sent packing, 19-16. The following season was nearly a carbon copy. After putting up 1,709 yards, James was on the short end of a one-and-out postseason, the Colts dumped by the Dolphins, 23-17.
He had become just the fifth player in NFL history to win rushing titles in his first two seasons -- joining legendary names such as Jim Brown, Earl Campbell, and Eric Dickerson -- but the sweetness of the accomplishment was no match for the bitterness of the playoff losses. Nor did his mood improve much in 2001 when, thanks to a serious knee injury, his season came to an end in Week 6, and the Colts stumbled to 6-10. And even though the team improved to 10-6 in 2002, James struggled with his reconstructed knee and was plagued by other leg ailments; he played in 14 games and ran for only 989 yards. The Colts, despite an All-Pro trio on offense -- Manning, James, wide receiver Marvin Harrison -- were slapped silly by the Jets, 41-0, in a playoff game.
So why has 2003 produced a 12-4 record, 41-10 and 38-31 playoff wins, and an AFC Championship berth?
"The team has talked about how every week is different," said James, who ran for 1,259 yards but learned the most from the 1 he didn't get. Stuffed by the Patriots' Willie McGinest on the final play of the game Nov. 30, James's inability to score from the 1-yard line preserved New England's 38-34 victory, but instead of sulking, the 25-year-old said he learned yet another NFL lesson.
"You've got to play all four quarters," he said, a reference to the fact that the Patriots built leads of 17-0 and 31-10 that day. "Now, if it's third and 1, I tell myself, `Make sure you get the first down.' Before on third and 1, I'd be like, `Man, I don't care, I'm going to try and get a big play,' and I'd end up losing yards some time."
There has to be something to this maturation process, because after three playoff losses in three chances, James has been a key cog in two impressive postseason triumphs this time. While Manning's arm and orchestration at the line of scrimmage win most of the plaudits, there's no doubt that having the swift and powerful James in the backfield helps open up that passing game. But James is content with his small piece of the spotlight, satisfied to be back healthy, answering the critics who questioned whether he had the heart to come back from such a serious knee injury.
"If I felt like I couldn't [play], I would just say, `You know what? I'm not going to play,' " said James. "If I can't keep doing something and do it well, I'm not going to keep playing. I tell myself now, `What do I need to get better?' And I never think, `Fine, OK, I'm cool, I've done enough.'
"I'm stronger, a whole lot stronger now."