Craig James had an uninspiring performance against the New York Jets in last Saturday's American Conference wild-card game, gaining just 49 yards on 22 carries. Considering the New England Patriots won, 26-14, James was not at all unhappy.
"Hey, that's fine with me," said James, who is in Anaheim, Calif., this week preparing for an AFC playoff semifinal Sunday against the Los Angeles Raiders. The New England team spent much of this week practicing at nearby Orange Coast Community College.
"The Jets just put a lot of emphasis on stopping the run, but they couldn't get to Tony (Eason) that much (three sacks for 20 yards)," said James, a former member of the defunct U.S. Football League Washington Federals. "If I run for 50 yards Sunday, we'll probably score anyway because we've got some great receivers."
That will be a tough chore. The Raiders were second in the AFC in both rushing and passing defense, and first in total defense. "They're very similar to the Jets," James said. "They fly around and make a lot happen."
The Raiders are similar to the Patriots in that they have turned themselves around after a slow start. The Patriots were 2-3, but have won 10 of their last 12.
The Raiders were part of the Patriots' early problems. The Raiders were 1-2 and the Patriots were 2-1 when the two teams met Sept. 29 in Foxboro, Mass. A 35-20 victory righted the Raiders, but it was a low point for the Patriots. They were giving the ball away as if it was carrying a virus, and there was frustration with the offense of new coach Raymond Berry.
In their first four games, New England lost eight interceptions, seven fumbles and gave the ball away more than its opponent in each game. Since then it hasn't been on the minus side of the turnover ratio.
"The big thing against the Raiders was our generosity," said James, whose fumble was returned for six points. "We made too many mistakes, gave up too many turnovers and gave them 21 points. We're a different ball club than we were then. At that point, we weren't playing offense."
That also was the point that James really became part of the offense. At times during the first few weeks, he was upset that the ball wasn't finding its way into his hands as often as he thought it might.
"It was just that I wanted a chance to help, to make things happen," James said.
Happen they did. James finished the year with 1,227 yards on 263 carries for a 4.7 yard average per carry. His total was good for third in the AFC, behind the Raiders' Marcus Allen (1,759) and the Jets' Freeman McNeil (1,331).
"I was happy with it, especially considering that in the first four or five weeks, I didn't do anything," James said. "Then, I was given a chance and I stayed healthy."
James' success, as well as the team's, was partially the result of the play of the offensive line, from which guard John Hannah and tackle Brian Holloway are going to the Pro Bowl.
"Anytime anybody does anything in terms of running, you have to have the offensive line," James said. "I know they look at it (James getting more than 1,000 yards) with a lot of pride. They know how important they are in getting that. I think they're pleased and somewhat satisfied because they have accomplished a lot."
If the Patriots of September and early October were troubled and unloved, the Patriots of January are united and revered. James and Berry are getting along and the city of Boston is bouncing over the team's first playoff victory in 22 years.
"People in New England are nuts, really cranked up," James said, adding that the euphoria took a while to build. "First of all, people figured we'd lose to Cincinnati and not make the playoffs. But we beat them, and that got people excited. Then we played the Jets and people weren't too sure of that. But we won, and now they're starting to believe a little more."
As for Berry, "He's a great person and has us all playing well because we like playing for him. He's always been a straight shooter."
But what about the early-season discord?
"He was learning how to handle the situation as a head coach," James said. "He had to get to know us."
Berry probably would agree.
"Our football team is not where it was four months ago, three months ago, two months ago," Berry said. "Neither am I. I'm a lot older, more tired and I feel better because we've won some games and we've won some big ones."
As for the next big one, James is glad the Patriots did not have a week off as the Raiders did.
"I believe there is something to having experience in the playoffs," he said. "That's a plus for the Raiders. That's why I'm glad we had the opportunity to play this past week and had the chance to taste success in the playoffs. It did a lot for our confidence."