Catch 22 Sure, Emmitt Smith looks good in his new Cardinals threads, but great backs rarely fare well when they change uniforms late in their careers

August 03, 2003

Just after eight o'clock last Saturday morning, the pristine
practice fields at Northern Arizona University still wet with
dew, NFL career rushing leader Emmitt Smith jogged out of the
locker room to begin the first day of the rest of his football
life. But he was in Arizona Cardinals red and white, not Dallas
Cowboys silver and blue. He was cheered by a crowd of several
hundred, not the several thousand who typically flock to Dallas's
summer practices. One man who looked about 60 even walked past
sleepy young security guards and approached Smith as he limbered
up. "I'm from Pensacola!" the man announced, a reference to
Smith's hometown. The man extended his hand, and a stunned
Smith obliged. His move to Arizona was the equivalent of Matthew
Broderick and Nathan Lane bringing The Producers to summer stock
on the Delaware shore.

Never mind that recent NFL history (not to mention common sense)
suggests that Smith has set himself up for disaster; the
34-year-old future Hall of Famer is so ready to be out of the
spotlight on America's team. Last season, during which he
surpassed Walter Payton's alltime rushing record, "was the worst
year I ever went through playing football," Smith said between
practice sessions. "Too much damn drama. Too much selfishness by
too many guys on the team. Too much media frenzy around the team.
People always looking to me for answers, and I didn't have the
answers for them about why we were so bad. It felt like being a
diamond surrounded by trash.

"It was just a mental grind," he added. "When I got the record,
it was like God said, 'I'm going to give you one moment this
year.'"

As he tried to put his three Super Bowl championships and four
rushing titles as a Cowboy in perspective, Smith raised both
hands to his face and went quiet for a full 10 seconds. A tear
trickled from his right eye. "The game, these moments, they mean
a hell of a lot," he said. "Damn! I don't think people truly
understand what it all means to a player who puts everything he
has into a game."

Despite Smith's obvious bitterness, one gets the feeling that his
resentment about the way his Dallas career ended--he was released
by owner Jerry Jones on Feb. 27 and never met with new coach Bill
Parcells--will fade with time. "I look around the league," Smith
said, "and I know how fortunate I am to be able to say I only had
one sorry-ass year."

He'll be fortunate if he can still say that after playing with
the Cardinals, who have had one winning season since moving from
St. Louis in 1988. Last year Arizona, which ranked 27th in the
league in offense, lost nine of its last 10 to finish 5-11.
Quarterback Jake Plummer and wideout David Boston, the team's
biggest offensive threat, left as free agents. Plummer's
replacement, 32-year-old Jeff Blake, is with his fifth NFL team
in 12 years. The Cardinals' top draft pick, wide receiver Bryant
Johnson of Penn State, was still unsigned at week's end. The
arrival of Smith pushed the team's best remaining weapon,
third-year running back Marcel Shipp (834 yards, 4.4 per carry),
to the bench. A potentially strong offensive line is still
unsettled after a season in which it was riddled with injuries.

If the Arizona passing game doesn't click, defenses will do
exactly what they did last year against a Dallas offense that
ranked 30th in the league: load up to stop Smith, whose streak of
11 straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons ended. He gained 975
yards, including 13 on 18 carries in his last game as a Cowboy, a
20-14 loss to the Washington Redskins. "We know we'll see a
steady diet of the eight-man fronts," Arizona center Pete Kendall
says.

With all that to overcome, Smith will be fighting to avoid the
kind of ignominious exit made by numerous other NFL star backs
who tried to prolong their careers. Of the top 15 alltime
rushers, five ended up with new teams--and every ending was
ugly. O.J. Simpson spent two injury-marred seasons with the San
Francisco 49ers in the late 1970s. Franco Harris had 68
forgettable carries for the Seattle Seahawks in '84. Tony
Dorsett, who, like Smith, was 34 when he left Dallas, went to
the Denver Broncos in '88 and had a 703-yard season. Eric
Dickerson, playing for the Los Angeles Raiders and the Atlanta
Falcons in the early '90s, rushed for only 820 yards over those
two years. Thurman Thomas had 28 carries for the Miami Dolphins
in 2000 before blowing out a knee and retiring.

Smith dismisses any suggestion that he is headed down the same
road. "I've defied the odds all my life," he says. "I wasn't
supposed to be a productive back for 13 years, was I? Why would I
let another tough situation stand in my way?"

When Arizona coach Dave McGinnis and running backs coach Johnny
Roland studied last year's videotape of Smith, they saw a back
who was repeatedly stuck in traffic. They decided that was due
more to the Cowboys' incompetence than to Smith's decline. Says
Roland, "When Dave asked me if we should sign Emmitt, I told him,
'He gained 975 yards behind a terrible line, with no quarterback,
and with defenses playing eight-man fronts all the time. Of
course we should.'"

Upon signing Smith to a two-year contract in late March, McGinnis
told his new back that he needed him to be a positive presence as
much as a force in the offense. So on many days of the Cardinals'
off-season program--as was often the case in Dallas--Smith was
one of first guys in the weight room, showing up at 6:45 a.m.
"One morning Emmitt walks in with a nice suit on," Kendall says.
"I'm wearing the same shorts I've had on for four days and some
T-shirt. I said to him, 'You got a board meeting somewhere
today?' He just said, 'Nah, this is the way I come to work.'
Emmitt doesn't need another check. He's here because he wants to
play."

Another reason Arizona signed Smith was his potential as a
marketing tool--this may be the closest Cardinals fans ever get
to football royalty. Average attendance was a league-low 40,910
last year, and the team still has three seasons left at outdated
Sun Devil Stadium, a metal-bleachered hotbox, before moving into
its new facility. But Smith's signing didn't spark a rush to the
box office; the franchise has seen no significant rise in ticket
sales. That's what one winning record in 15 seasons will do for
you.

One thing the Cardinals want to do for Smith is to make sure his
legs are fresh for the Sept. 7 opener in Detroit against the
Lions--not to mention for the Oct. 5 road date against the
Cowboys. "Like I told you earlier," Roland said to Smith before
last Saturday morning's practice, "you tell me how much work you
need."

As always, Smith will want a lot once the season starts. When you
consider that for 20 years--four at Escambia (Fla.) High, three
at Florida and 13 in Dallas--he has been a primary target of the
opposing defense, the biggest surprise is that Smith didn't enter
camp with nagging injuries. He says he feels great. But he knows
what the critics are saying. And that only makes the chip on his
shoulder bigger.

"Is it in me?" he boomed, repeating the last question before
practice resumed. "Is it in me? Shoot, yeah! I truly believe this
is my destiny: to help the Cardinals do great things."

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH [T OF C] EMMITT'S BACK Future Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith will wear the same number but different colors as a Cardinal (page 44). COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH HEAVY DUTY Smith says he can carry the load for Arizona, but does the alltime rushing leader have enough left to get the job done? COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH PLAYER-COACH Though his carries will come at the expense of Shipp (31), Smith will try to mentor the young back. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH LOOSENING UP Smith can expect to see plenty of eight-man defensive fronts if Arizona can't move the ball through the air.

For more on the NFL, check out Peter King's Postcards from Camp
at si.com/football.

Smith called last season "the worst year I ever went through
playing football. Too much damn drama. Too much selfishness by too
many guys on the team."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)