View Full Version : A bittersweet return

10-04-2003, 02:18 PM
Emmitt Smith claims he doesn't know what to expect, but of course we know that's not really true. He's the biggest star to ever don the helmet with the star, and he'll be welcomed back into Texas Stadium on Sunday like the familiar and beloved icon that he remains in Dallas.

Yes, Cowboys fans will stand and cheer when the most famous Arizona Cardinal runs onto the field in that trademark gliding stride of his, as well they should. They'll be cheering that he's back, and if they're thinking straight, cheering, too, that he's gone.

Because the obvious truth in Dallas is that there is life after Emmitt, and the Cowboys and their fans are better off without him. From the sound of the hurt in his voice this week, that hard, cold early season fact has begun to dawn on even old No. 22 himself.

Let's face it, as long as Smith was around, still carrying the mail each week, Dallas was in some ways going to be a franchise forever looking back, at the team's mid-'90s glory era, at the memorable coaching tenures of Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer, or at those hazy, crazy days when the Cowboys were the center of the NFL universe.

Smith was the Cowboys' lone star and every day that he still wore one was a day that his glittering track record and his accomplishments obscured almost everything else in Dallas.

But without Smith, the Cowboys -- and most importantly new head coach Bill Parcells -- were free to embrace the future unencumbered by the last walking, talking reminder of the team's rich recent history. The move, as jarring to the senses as it was, closed the book on Dallas' blinding Lombardi Trophy reflection of the past, and was the symbolic step toward crafting another glory era with all new names and faces and big moments to come.

This week, with the big weekend reunion looming, there's been a little revisionist history, or least some selective recall, being practiced on both sides. Smith says he still might be a Cowboy if Parcells had only wanted him. Parcells says it wasn't his call to make, and termed it a situation he didn't feel qualified to jump into the middle of.

For starters, with the NFL career rushing mark well in hand, I don't believe Smith ever had much of a chance of returning to Dallas for a 14th season. As for Parcells' disclaimer, the next key decision he sits out will be his first.

"It is what it is," said Smith on Wednesday, in one of his many reunion-week interviews. "I think [Parcells] got what he wanted, and he's doing well with what he has. Obviously, the decision was good for him."

Just as obviously, Smith doesn't think the decision was good for him. Asked about saying at the time of his release that he didn't think he would fit into Parcells' plans, Smith said:

"I don't ever recall saying that I wouldn't fit in with Parcells, because I never knew what the system was going to be like. I don't know what I could have [done]. I never had a chance to talk to the man about his system and how he saw his system.

"[But the] wishing is over. The situation has moved on. I've moved on. It is what it is. I can't cry over spilled milk, because I'm no longer there. I still don't know if I could fit in that system, because I never had a chance to play in that system."

I'm convinced that the Cowboys have moved on. I'm not so sure about Smith. It has to be gnawing at him that Parcells-led Dallas is 2-1 and one of the better early season stories in the NFL, while his sad-sack Cardinals sit at 1-3, fighting their perennial struggle against a lack of playing talent and an overabundance of fan apathy.

Buoyed by their two-game September road trip to the Meadowlands, Dallas has won consecutive road encounters for the first time since 2000, and boasts a winning record for the first time since December 1999. This weekend it will be going for its first three-game winning streak since 1999, the last season in which it made the playoffs. Most remarkably of all, the Cowboys' offense is ranked No. 1 overall in the NFL, with a fourth-ranked rushing game that has averaged 152.7 yards in its first three games of the post-Smith era.

Smith's replacement, Troy Hambrick, has run 61 times for 240 yards in just three games, while Smith is plodding along at under 50 yards per game, totaling 193 yards on 59 carries. That projects to a career-low 772 yards, and Smith has carried more than 20 times only once, an indication of just how much of the time the Cardinals have trailed.

"We've been consistently poor," Smith said of his new team. "Consistently shooting ourselves in the foot. Consistently making immature mistakes. Consistently turning the football over. ... I get tired of talking about it. At some point we have to do it."

It must all be so new and disorienting for Smith. Once the Cowboys won because of him, and now they're winning without him. And even reveling in it. This week some of the Cowboys even piled on their old teammate, still smarting from Smith's self-serving decision to describe himself in an August Sports Illustrated article as "a diamond surrounded by trash" last season.

"I think sometimes it felt as though the season was based on him getting his rushing record rather than us having a successful winning percentage," defensive end Ebenezer Ekuban said. "It was a distraction. ... [This season], we have better things to focus on as a team, and that's winning games."

Smith also endured questions this week as to whether his homecoming will be tainted by his controversial comments, a development he couldn't have been thinking of on the March day he signed a two-year deal with Arizona, and began marking time until this celebrated Week 5 trip to Dallas.

"Taint? Taint what?" Smith said. "What are we tainting? Take away from what? It is what it is. I don't know what to expect. I don't know how they're going to receive me. They may receive me as the enemy. They may boo me, I don't know. I can only hope that they will receive me with open arms, but I understand what the situation is."

Smith needn't worry. He's a living legend in Dallas, and no two-bit regular-season football game is going to change that. And rightfully so. His 13-year career as a Cowboy is the stuff of Texas-sized achievement: Three Super Bowl rings, four league rushing titles, and the kind of lasting fame that comes with being the man who broke the heroic Walter Payton's career rushing record.

Shoot, he probably could decline to ever step foot in the state of Texas again after Sunday and still be even money to be elected governor. That's how strong and enduring his image and legacy are in that part of the country, and I don't think he could break those bonds if he tried.

You want proof? How is Tom Landry remembered in Dallas these days? Gone? Yes. Forgotten? Never.

In some ways Smith's departure was almost identical to the hard choices that had to be made in Dallas at the beginning of the Jones era. Landry had molded the Cowboys into an American institution, and taken the team to five Super Bowls, winning twice. But when it came time to start a new chapter in franchise history, the team's legendary head coach found his services were no longer required.

It was Landry's turn to step aside gracefully then, and Smith's now. Jones eased his latest franchise great off the stage with a good deal more skill than he did his first one, but the Cowboys owner can only hope things work out as well as the last time he went through just such a risky maneuver.

After all, Smith's name remains synonymous with the Dallas Cowboys to most of the country's football fans. And for three hours this Sunday, it'll probably make us all a bit warm and fuzzy to see him running again on that familiar Texas Stadium field.

That's why it's only right that Dallas fans can't wait to stand and cheer Smith's return this week, taking time to recall all those great days gone by. As long as they remember one more thing once the game starts: These Cowboys are better off now that Smith is gone.

Updated on Thursday, Oct 2, 2003 8:04 pm EDT sports.yahoo.com/nfl/news?slug=abittersweetret&prov=cnnsi&type=lgns (http://sports.yahoo.com/nfl/news?slug=abittersweetret&prov=cnnsi&type=lgns)