Edgerrin James still likes playing football. He just doesn’t like playing the games that come with it.

The three-time Pro Bowler and two-time NFL rushing champion said Thursday he was ready for another big season — even though he’d prefer to have a long-term contract with the Indianapolis Colts.

“I play football, that’s the easy part,” he said. “But after everything I’ve done and you fight back from an injury and it’s still not good enough, there’s nothing you can do. If you say something you get blasted. But I’m cool, everyone’s cool.”

James had hoped to cash in on last year’s big season as a free agent. Instead, the Colts placed the franchise tag on James, one of the key players in their high-scoring offense.

After rushing for 1,548 yards and nine touchdowns and catching 51 passes for 483 yards in 2004, Indianapolis offered him a one-year deal worth slightly more than $8 million. He signed the deal in March and James’ new agent, Drew Rosenhaus, then shopped him in trade talks as he sought a multiyear deal.

When Rosenhaus found no takers, some speculated James’ dissatisfaction could lead to a holdout. It didn’t. James sneaked into camp Wednesday and participated in the Colts’ first practice Thursday morning.

No, things didn’t go perfectly — James and two-time MVP Peyton Manning fumbled their first handoff.

Coach Tony Dungy said it happens on Day 1.

“You’re never quite as good as you want to be,” he said. “As a coach you want it to be perfect and, certainly, we were not perfect.”

The usually free-speaking James took a more cautious approach to questions Thursday.

HE avoided criticizing the Colts but expressed displeasure with a free-agency system that allows teams to retain top players by tagging them with either the franchise or transition designation. The tags guarantee players a big salary for one year but limits their options because most teams are unwilling to part with the two first-round picks required to sign a “franchise” player as compensation.

“Once I got tagged, I knew it was over,” James said. “You’ve just got to take it to the river and go from there.”

Regardless, James is ready to move on.

For those who think his career is winding down after six seasons, James has a message: He doesn’t turn 27 until next week, is as healthy and strong as he’s ever been and intends to take out his frustration on opposing defenses.

“I want to finish off my career strong,” he said. “To come back from what I went through and come back last year and have one my best years ever, you want to keep going. It’s the other game I have trouble with. I’ll figure it out one day.”