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Snap Judgments: Emmitt Smith's career comes full circle, more

Musings, observations and the occasional insight as we prepare to hit the road next week for some NFL training camps and the stickiest, sweatiest portion of every football season...

• Listening earlier this week to Emmitt Smith ruminate and reflect on his upcoming induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame made me feel particularly ancient and acutely aware of the passage of time. In the midst of his NFL-organized conference call on Monday, it dawned on me that I have now witnessed as close to the complete arc of his football life span as any player I've ever interviewed or written about.

In a little more than 2½ weeks, Smith and six other football luminaries get to pull on those gaudy yellow blazers and closely inspect their newly unveiled busts as they're enshrined in Canton. But when it comes to Jerry Rice, John Randle, Rickey Jackson, Floyd Little, Dick LeBeau or Russ Grimm, I can't say I've been watching and hearing about them since they were 15-year-old sophomores in high school like I can with Smith, who is the biggest thing to ever come out of Pensacola, Fla.

The first time I heard Emmitt Smith's name was 26 years ago this fall, when he and his Escambia High Gators soundly beat the undefeated St. Petersburg High Green Devils in the Class 3A state championship game. That was late 1984, and the title game was a big stinking deal in my hometown of St. Petersburg, where I was just out of college and starting my reporting career covering high school sports for the St. Petersburg Times.

It was no doubt the biggest game to date of Smith's nascent football career, but as you know, he would go on to star in quite a few more, including the next year when Escambia repeated as state champs thanks to their unstoppable junior running back. And here he is today -- after 15 NFL seasons, three Super Bowl rings and the league's all-time rushing record -- getting ready to be bestowed with football's highest honor, a spot in the hallowed Hall, not to mention being presented in Canton by Jerry Jones, no doubt a thrill in its own right.

I've told this story before (even reminding a slightly hazy Emmitt a couple of times), but I went up and spent three days in Pensacola in May 1986 to do a blowout feature story on the 17-year-old Smith as he prepared for a senior season that would see him climb to No. 3 among the country's all-time high school rushing leaders, with 8,804 yards. Though he was already a superstar on the national high school football scene and being wildly recruited by colleges far and wide, he informed me on that trip, remarkably enough, that I was the first out-of-town reporter he had ever spoken to. I even spent most of an evening in his family's living room, talking to his parents and collecting Emmitt stories from everyone and anyone who was willing to tell them. (Funny, but no one told me that young Emmitt had a gift for ballroom dancing).

You could tell even then that Smith was the real deal, but how could anyone have foreseen where he would go and what he would accomplish with a football tucked in his arms? As hard as it is for me to wrap my late-40s mind around it, since those days in mid-May '86, the polite, well-mannered kid who gave me mostly yes-sir, no-sir answers has put in one last, monstrous fall of high school football, three record-breaking seasons at the University of Florida (1987-89), 13 years in Dallas (1990-2002) as the preeminent Cowboy, two more hanging on in Arizona (2003-2004), and five full seasons of retirement from the NFL.

That's pretty much the blueprint for a Hall of Fame football career. Though it has mostly been from afar, having witnessed Smith go from football phenom to one of the game's legendary figures gives me a sense of the magic carpet ride that is experienced by the handful of players who spend nearly every moment of their football careers at or near the top. I'm talking about the first-ballot types, the league's record-holders and former MVP-level stars. It's rarified air up there with the best of the best, a very select club in which Smith certainly belongs.

And now, it's Canton calling, coming full circle in a football career where Smith always seemed to be running downhill and picking up steam. Consider this: While it seems like we've all known about Emmitt forever, he's still only 41. If he's fortunate, he might be able to live half his life as the member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Not a bad gig if you can get it.

But a word of warning to the good folks who run the Hall: Like he did with a tackler or two in almost every game, Emmitt Smith might just wear out a few yellow blazers along the way. Better make sure his is one size you've got in stock.

• On that same conference call, Smith was asked if he could see anyone ever breaking his career NFL rushing record of 18,355 yards, a mark that some have speculated may never be approached in a league that grows more in love with the forward pass every year. Smith, who broke Walter Payton's mark in 2002, said he didn't think his record was unbreakable, but he also didn't endorse any potential challenger to his throne with much enthusiasm.

LaDainian Tomlinson is the closest active rusher to Smith, but he's still almost 6,000 yards behind him with 12,490, and Smith doesn't sound like he considers him a threat. LT is 31, couldn't crack 750 yards last year in his final season as a Charger, and is slated to get No. 2 back carries with the Jets in 2010.

"I thought LaDainian Tomlinson would have been one guy that would challenge it,'' Smith said. "The last couple of years his career has kind of been going a little sideways. Now, he's in New York and how long he's there can determine how close he's going to get.''

A little sideways about sums it up. Come to think of it, LT is more of an east-west runner these days, rather than good ol' north and south.

Speaking of the Jets and Chargers, they won't meet during the regular season, so we'll have to wish for a rematch in the playoffs if we want to see if cornerback Antonio Cromartie can tackle a Chargers ballcarrier any better than he did a Jets ballcarrier last January.

That was one of the great surprises of this offseason, that the Jets, of all teams, traded for Cromartie after his infamous whiff on an attempted tackle (sort of) of Shonn Greene paved the way for the Jets rookie running back to break off a game-sealing 53-yard touchdown run late in New York's 17-14 AFC divisional-round upset of San Diego.

More than anything, that embarrassingly half-hearted attempt by Cromartie sent a Chargers team that had won 11 in a row home for the winter and punched his ticket out of San Diego. As much Rex Ryan demands that his Jets defenders to play an aggressive, physical style, it's going to be interesting to see if an old dog can be taught a new trick. The Chargers were under the belief that Cromartie was more athlete than true cornerback.

• More than any other personnel move they made this offseason, the Ravens' decision to sign ex-Rams starting quarterback Marc Bulger to a one-year, $3.8 million deal as an insurance policy behind starter Joe Flacco is the most revealing in terms of their Super Bowl intentions. You don't slide that kind of money to a backup quarterback unless you believe you have a team capable of winning it all and you refuse to let your aspirations hinge on one injury to your starting QB.

Bulger's presence in Baltimore speaks of the great expectations in Ravens-land that I wrote about earlier this week. And who can forget the key roles that a couple of former starters-turned-backups have played in Baltimore during the past decade or so? For some teams, there are years in which making the playoffs depends largely on who they've got at backup quarterback. There's some positive history in the Ravens organization for just this kind of acquisition.

First off, there was Baltimore signing ex-Bucs starter Trent Dilfer in 2000, ostensibly to serve as the No. 2 behind Tony Banks. All that turned into was Dilfer going 11-1 as a starter after Banks was benched, with the Ravens roaring to the only Super Bowl title in franchise history.

The next year, after Baltimore had unwisely let Dilfer walk in favor of signing free-agent Elvis Grbac, it was the late addition of veteran Randall Cunningham that wound up paying huge dividends. Cunningham, in the final season of his NFL career, wound up winning his only two starts for Baltimore that year as the defending champions went 10-6 and returned to the playoffs.

• You probably haven't heard much about Shawnbrey McNeal yet, but I'm told that first-round pick Ryan Mathews isn't the only rookie running back worth paying attention to in San Diego this season. McNeal, an undrafted free agent out of SMU, made people notice him during the Chargers' offseason workouts and there's a belief within the organization that he could wind up being the guy who replaces third-down back Darren Sproles in 2011.

The Chargers franchised Sproles in 2009 and protected him via a one-year, $7.28-million restricted free-agent tender this spring (first and third-round compensation level), a move they had to make after giving Tomlinson his freedom. But while Mathews, the draft's 12th overall pick out of Fresno State, is expected to get No. 1 back duties this season, San Diego is eager to see if McNeal can prove to be a more affordable third-down specialist in the role Sproles has owned in recent years.

Like Sproles, McNeal is small (5-9, 190) but quick, he runs with power and has good hands. After transferring from the University of Miami, he played for throw-happy head coach June Jones at SMU, so he knows how to catch the ball out of the backfield and get upfield with a sense of fluidity. McNeal left college a year early in order to help support and care for his mother's medical concerns, so he might need a redshirt season of sorts as an NFL rookie. But keep an eye on him in the Chargers' third running back competition this summer.

• Something that struck me as I looked over this year's list of Hall of Fame inductees again is the clear-cut divide that exists between players who starred before the free-agent era started in 1993, and those who starred during it.

One thing we've lost during free agency is the Hall of Fame enshrinement of players who spent their entire careers wearing the same uniform and thus became synonymous with their teams. I'm sure some would say that player movement is not a bad thing, and it certainly has been more lucrative to play in the free agency period, but it looks nowhere as nice and neat on a Hall of Fame plaque.

Consider this year's class: LeBeau played all 14 of his NFL seasons as a Lion (1959-72), Grimm all 11 as a Redskin (1981-91), and Little all nine as a Bronco (1967-75). Then contrast them with the other four men who will be inducted next month: Rice was a 49er for 16 seasons (1985-2000), but also wound up wearing the uniforms of the Raiders, Seahawks and even the Broncos (remember?) before retiring just before the 2005 regular season. Smith was a Cowboy for 13 of his 15 years in the NFL (1990-2002), but we do recall those last two desultory seasons as an Arizona Cardinal (2003-04).

John Randle made his name in Minnesota with 11 years in purple (1990-2000), but his final three seasons were spent toiling for Seattle (2001-03). And even Rickey Jackson, who barely squeaked into the free agency era, fits the trend. The first 13 years of his career were as a Saint (1981-93), but the final two featured him in 49ers colors (1994-95).

Not exactly reason to grow wistful and conjure up a "Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?'' moment, but you get my point.

Everybody wants to know which team is eventually going to break down and sign Terrell Owens, giving him that fifth different NFL team on his resume. My pat answer is this: Tell me which team is going to be the first to lose a No. 1 or No. 2 receiver to a significant injury this preseason and I'll tell you the team that's going to pick up the phone and give T.O. a buzz -- provided, you know, that the team isn't San Francisco, Philadelphia, Dallas or Buffalo. Oh, and you can add Miami (Bill Parcells is there) and Washington (Donovan McNabb) to that list.

In case you're wondering, my training camp tour starts next Thursday with the Redskins, and continues onward to the Ravens, Patriots, Vikings, Packers, Bears, Colts, Rams, Chiefs and Broncos. More to come after that, but 10 teams in 11 days isn't a bad way to kick off the 2010 season.

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