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Smith in no rush to slow down

Future Hall of Fame athletes playing past their prime often bleach memories of their greatness. That's why it was difficult to watch Arizona Cardinals running back Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time leading rusher, struggle for yardage last season. Fans want images of his dominance to remain colorful and vivid, not fade with every setback.

Youngsters who took up watching the NFL last season would need much convincing that the Smith of recent years was something to behold -- that the guy who finished with minus-1 yard on 6 carries last season against the Dallas Cowboys once led that franchise to three Super Bowl titles in four seasons and rushed for 1,000 yards 11 times in his first 12 seasons.

But what does a 35-year-old Superman do when he's not ready to hang up the cape? He works to harness his remaining might, concentrates his efforts to fewer tasks, and in the process proves he does not have to recapture all of his past dominance to be successful.

Gone are the days when Smith will finish a season as the league's leading rusher. He amassed 256 yards on 90 carries in an injury-plagued campaign last year after posting 975 yards on 254 carries the year before (his final season in Dallas).

For him, gaining 1,000 yards this season would be a major feat. But such a feat may not be so improbable, judging from his performance in Arizona's 17-10 season-opening loss to the St. Louis Rams.

Smith, in his 15th season, posted 87 yards and a touchdown on 16 carries for his best single-game performance in a Cardinals' uniform and the most since he rushed for 144 yards in 23 carries for Dallas against Washington Nov. 28, 2002.

On the Cardinals' second drive of the third quarter last week, Smith ran the ball four times for 32 yards, then scored on an 11-yard touchdown run to give Arizona a 10-9 advantage. The touchdown was just his third as a Cardinal and the 156th of his career, extending his all-time NFL lead in that category.

It was also his longest scoring run since posting a 30-yarder against the New York Giants Oct. 6, 2002, and the clearest indication in recent games that Smith could be on his way to achieving new feats rather than moving further from his glory days.

"I feel like my skill level is still up there. I may not lead the league in rushing, I may not lead the division in rushing, but I am still an effective back," said Smith, who hopes to lead Arizona against the Patriots Sunday. "I feel very confident and comfortable with where I am in terms of being a running back, and my fire, desire, and love for the game have not left."

First-year coach Dennis Green named Smith the starting running back following offseason minicamps, when he withstood competition from former University of Massachusetts standout Marcel Shipp.

The two were supposed to share the bulk of rushing this season before Shipp suffered season-ending ankle and leg injuries in an intrasquad scrimmage Aug. 6.

That means Smith's durability and his ability to elude tackles and run in the open field will be tested.

It could be that Smith is primed to reinvent himself and add to his legacy.

"I came in and I didn't have a clue if Emmitt was interested in retiring or staying," said Green, the former Minnesota Vikings mentor. "We sat down and talked. He told me he wanted to play again. I told him, `Great,' because I have a lot of respect for him. We had Hall of Fame-type players in San Francisco [where he was an assistant coach] and at Minnesota.

"They normally have the same ingredient, which is a drive to be successful. Emmitt was as good, probably as good as anyone in the winter weight training program . . . As a result of that, [during] training camp, he never missed a day. I think he's ready to go out and have a really solid year."

The most disappointing aspect of last season, Smith said, was not winning more games, which resulted in the firing of coach Dave McGinnis. But he and Green are on the same page regarding demands and expectations, Smith said.

"The work that he demands of every player on the team has been one I've been accustomed to over my years of playing ball," said Smith, who has also played for Jimmy Johnson, Barry Switzer, and Chan Gailey. "The commitment that he demands is the same thing that I have been accustomed to all my career. The way I see it, he and I line up very well together."

Smith entered the season with 76 100-yard rushing games, one shy of the late Walter Payton's all-time NFL record. In 2002, he surpassed Payton as the NFL's all-time leading rusher. He currently has 17,505 yards and is the NFL's all-time leader in rushing attempts (4,158). His 1,021 yards in 2001 made him the first running back to rush for 1,000 yards in 11 consecutive seasons.

But age and injuries slowed him last season, when he was inactive for six weeks because of a separated shoulder and fractured scapula (shoulder blade) suffered against Dallas. Prior to last season, Smith had missed just four games because of injury in his career.

When asked if he thought he'd be playing football at 40, Smith said, "No, I doubt that. I doubt that seriously."

Still, Smith said he sees himself as more patient than he was in Dallas. With the new coaching staff, and his struggles last year, he said he felt the need to enter this season and show he could still run productively.

"Obviously, after last year's season, there were probably a lot of questions, not only in [the new coaching staff's] minds, but in other people's minds as well, and they needed to see me physically," said Smith. "[They] needed to see my spirit, see how I work, see my work ethic, and see my approach to the game. They needed to see that I still had the fire and desire to get the job done.

"I think once I showed them that I still had those things, as well as leadership qualities . . . it kind of made them comfortable with me at the position."

Among those impressed by Smith's performance last week were Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who said, "That's why he's a Hall of Fame runner. He's an incredible player. He has great vision. He has an excellent feel and knack for picking the holes and making good cuts, particularly in the inside running game. He has good leg drive. He's just a hard guy to get to the ground." 

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