Long view becomes shortsighted

Cowboys: Always believing the NFL career rushing record was his destiny to achieve, Emmitt Smith is 93 yards away from making it a reality.

October 25, 2002|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

SOMETIME SOON — Emmitt Smith dreamed about this as a teenager, planned for it as a rookie, lived it for the past year as his personal countdown grew louder and shorter.

Sometime soon - possibly on Sunday - the Dallas Cowboys' running back will pass Walter Payton as the most prolific rusher in NFL history. It will be the crowning accomplishment in a career destined for the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, and a deserving tribute to one of the game's most respected stars.

But what makes it all the more remarkable is that Smith, now 33, envisioned this day for the first time as a youngster - at the age of 14 or 15, he says - growing up in Escambia, Fla.

It was right around that time that Payton slashed past Jim Brown in the record book. The late Chicago Bears great seized the record in 1984 and has held it for 18 years. Back then, Smith says he embodied a little bit of all the great runners he saw.

"I thought I was O.J. Simpson. I thought I was Walter Payton. I thought I was Tony Dorsett. I thought I was all those backs in one," Smith said.

"I used to go out there and run around and just think that Howard Cosell was talking about me with that football."

By the time Smith arrived in the NFL in 1990 as a first-round pick of the Cowboys, he was ready to address the dream. Sitting in an apartment at Valley Ranch before his first training camp in July, he jotted down a list of goals. Among them, he wanted to become the NFL's all-time leading rusher.

It wasn't pie in the sky.

If Smith gets 93 yards against the Seattle Seahawks' 32nd-rated rush defense on Sunday in Texas Stadium, he will topple the mark of 16,726 that Payton left. Payton reached that milestone in 13 seasons and 190 games. Smith has gained 16,634 yards in 13 seasons and 192 games.

It's not so much that Smith was prescient; it's more that his ambition merged blissfully with the course of history. He was fortunate to go to Dallas with coach Jimmy Johnson, quarterback Troy Aikman, wide receiver Michael Irvin and a Pro Bowl offensive line. Three Super Bowl victories grew out of that union.

What sets Smith apart from the vast majority of running backs is his passion for the game, his dedication and his consistency. He is quick, but not fast. He is small, at 5 feet 9, but strong enough to move a pile and come out the other side. He isn't as spectacular as he is effective at what he does.

"I'm not flashy," Smith says. "I come to work with my hammer and my hard hat every day."

A strong finish last season enabled Smith to set the NFL record for consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons (11). That level of production is what impresses Aikman.

"[The record] means that he's been able to play at a high level for a long period of time," Aikman, an analyst for Fox Sports now, said recently. "To me, that's what defines greatness."

Smith has been named to the Pro Bowl nine times. He won the league rushing title four times. He was NFL Player of the Year and Super Bowl Most Valuable Player for the 1993 season. He holds league records for career rushing touchdowns (149) and carries (3,905).

His longevity at a position noted for its punishment is a key element in Smith's record chase.

"Emmitt is an unusual athlete," Johnson said at a Fox teleconference, "but I think more than anything else he has taken care of himself as far as his conditioning. Emmitt is a smart running back in that he doesn't take a whole lot of hits and big collisions, so he's been able to protect himself, and for the most part, stay injury-free."

Says Smith, "If you know the history of the game with running backs, I'm two and three times extinct."

He is also undeniably well past his prime. Although Smith is averaging 4.2 yards a carry this season, his best rushing game was the 82 yards he gained Sunday in Arizona. That was also the only time this season he has had as many as 20 carries.

Smith has struggled at times behind a patchwork offensive line that has a new blocking scheme.

"He's in a different running style with the zone-blocking schemes that we're using with [offensive coordinator] Bruce Coslet's attack," coach Dave Campo said. "It's a little more patient style; it's not as much of a cutback style. I don't know if he lost a lot of speed. Emmitt never really had great speed to begin with."

Just as Smith chases Payton's record, mortality chases Smith. His contract runs through 2005, but it's improbable that he'll return to the Cowboys next season. He has a prohibitive salary cap charge of nearly $10 million next year, and expectations are that once Smith gets the record, third-year running back Troy Hambrick will get a higher profile in the offense.

Smith, who wants to keep playing, would have to accept a greatly reduced contract and diminished role to return.

The transitional state of the Cowboys also figures to impact his future. This is a team still hunting for a winning combination.

"It'd be naive of me to think that Emmitt hasn't declined, or that he's the back that he was five years ago," Aikman said. "I think Emmitt has lost a step. Is he still a productive back? Yes. The players around him aren't what they were.

"A lot of those guys that helped the Cowboys have all of that success are no longer with the team. It hurts Emmitt. It would have hurt him in his prime, and it hurts him now that he's coming toward the end of his career."

Emmitt Smith's statistics

Year Team G Att. Yds. Avg. TD

1990 Dallas 16 241 937 3.9 11

1991 Dallas 16 365 1,563 4.3 12

1992 Dallas 16 373 1,713 4.6 18

1993 Dallas 14 283 1,486 5.3 9

1994 Dallas 15 368 1,484 4.0 21

1995 Dallas 16 377 1,773 4.7 25

1996 Dallas 15 327 1,204 3.7 12

1997 Dallas 16 261 1,074 4.1 4

1998 Dallas 16 319 1,332 4.2 13

1999 Dallas 15 329 1,397 4.2 11

2000 Dallas 16 294 1,203 4.1 9

2001 Dallas 14 261 1,021 3.9 3

2002 Dallas 7 107 447 4.2 1

Tot. 192 3,905 16,634 4.3 149

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