Tuesday, August 12, 2003

Refreshed Smith assigned to give Cards new outlook

By Kent Somers
The Arizona Republic

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - For the final act of his career, all that's expected of Emmitt Smith is to gain 2,000 yards or so, sell thousands of tickets and lend credibility to one of the most unsuccessful franchises in professional sports.

And, while he's working miracles, maybe he could find time to do something about the heat.

It's a lot to ask of the veteran running back, 34, whose rushing statistics have declined for three consecutive seasons and who has come to a team - the Cardinals - that fans seem to have forgotten.

For the Cardinals, the decision to pursue Smith required few brain cells, not just because of what the NFL's all-time leading rusher might be able to do on the field, but what he could give them off the field. Visibility. Credibility. Leadership.

"That was the whole focus, let's try and change the attitude of our team," said Rod Graves, vice president for football operations.

The Cardinals see signs it's working. Smith shows up for off-season workouts at 6:45 a.m. and adapted without complaint to an unfamiliar training regimen. He plays dominoes with the younger guys and advises them on life in the NFL.

"If I were a player on this team, I would be embarrassed if any little tweak was keeping me out and there's a first-ballot Hall of Famer who is out there every practice," said coach Dave McGinnis.

The results on the business side are mixed. The team has drawn more interest from potential corporate sponsors, which are intrigued by possible partnerships involving Smith, said Ron Minegar, vice president for marketing and sales.

Businesses ranging from the large, Coca-Cola, to the small, an office cleaning service, have called.

"We think it will translate into ticket sales as the season goes along," Minegar said.

But if there's increased interest now, it hasn't motivated many to buy tickets. Paid attendance for Saturday night's first pre-season game was only 23,838, but weather may have played a role - the temperature at kickoff was 110 degrees.

Smith spent 13 seasons in a Dallas uniform, gaining at least 1,000 yards in 11 of them, an NFL record.

But many think his talents have slipped, and Smith was due to count almost $10 million against the Cowboys' salary cap. They cut him and kept Troy Hambrick.

The Cards began pursuing him immediately, and in March, Smith signed a two-year contract worth $7.5 million, including a $2.5 million signing bonus.

"Why not the Cardinals?" Smith said. "I think it's a tremendous opportunity here."

As he came off the field one day at training camp, Smith smiled as he thought of the difference in talent between the Cardinals offensive line and the Cowboys.

"Someone asked why I was smiling," he said. "Shoot . . . you haven't seen what I've been behind (in Dallas). You haven't came from where I came from. So I have a few reasons to smile. I think the guys up front can be very good and can help us get better."

Center Pete Kendall said he believes Smith's true impact will be felt late in the season, when players are walking bruises, when it would be easy to opt out of practice because coaches would probably give you that option.

"Then you see a guy who has been beat up for 12, 14 years, he's the all-time leading rusher in our league and he's still going out there and practicing anyway," Kendall said. "That's more of an influence than the fact there are 9,000 people asking for his autograph."

Emmitt Smith at a glance

Career totals for Arizona running back Emmitt Smith:

YearsYardsCarriesAvg.TDsRec. yards
Circle the dates

• Arizona will face Emmitt's former team, the Dallas Cowboys, on Oct. 5.

• The Bengals play at Arizona Nov. 2.

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