The Emmitt Delimma

Great sports figures are like that great car you once owned. They have lots of fond memories but are nothing more than an old car in the garage to your wife. And in the end, she will win out over the love of a machine. Just look at the want ads. They're full of men's memories and women's freshly cleaned out garages.

Emmitt Smith has been a machine in the past when it came to running the football. Yet he is at a crossroads in his career and facing mortality for the first time with the Dallas Cowboys. An unfamiliar situation for the most prolific tailback in football history.

Emmitt has achieved every milestone a running back could wish for in the NFL. He logged in 4 rushing titles in single seasons. Was the MVP of the Super Bowl in 1993. He recorded 153 rushing touchdowns as a running back in his career that has spanned 13 seasons. If there is one player, which encapsulates the history of this franchise, Emmitt Smith would be that player.

Yet as we sit here today in 2003, the team is headed in a new direction. The sixth head coach of the Dallas Cowboys is Bill Parcells. A man of similar stature in his rank as a leader and coach of teams with Super Bowl experience. Parcells is saddled with the decision on where Emmitt fits in with the future of the team. Or if he does at all.

Emmitt will draw 7 million dollars in base pay for the 2003 season. This along with his pro-rated bonus will put Mr. Smith right at 9.8 million dollars for his compensation. Depending on his role that could be about right or far too much.

Emmitt made an appearance on ESPN discussing the Super Bowl this season. When asked if he will be a Cowboy this next year he didn't hesitate to say he thought so. But he also commented that he wasn't certain in what capacity. Leaving himself wiggle room as he has done on any given Sunday.

Emmitt clearly indicated he would rejoin the team as the number two back if he thought the Cowboys were going to put someone in the first spot that can get the job done. But he also said that Troy Hambrick isn't that player and a move to elevate Troy above Emmitt would be seen as the team not wanting to win. Emmitt still wants to compete for the starting position.

To release Emmitt is a delicate situation. If he leaves before June 1st, the remainder of his bonus accelerates into the 2003 season. That causes Dallas to eat 5.6 million in cap. After June 1st allows the Cowboys to divide the cap hit over two seasons. But would Emmitt sit still for being released so late in a year when catching a ride with another team would be tough? Especially if he wishes to be the featured back.

Renegotiating with Emmitt can ease the cap burden, but only somewhat. The most he can be reduced is 30% of his cap space. So he could be dropped from 9.8 million to a little above 7 million. That would bring in a free agent and still leave enough money for the team to sign their draft picks. Happy days.

But the cost of doing this is a heavy one down the road. As Dallas improves under the Parcells regime they will need to target spots on the field and place players to close the distance between them and the top teams. That means cap dollars for free agents. By renegotiating Emmitt's contract you extend the amount of time he is on the teams cap. You will pay for Emmitt after he has retired from pro football.

This credit card mentality was what got Jerry Jones in trouble in the past. Injury, and especially to a veteran running back of 13 years, is not something as unlikely as it was ten years ago for Emmitt. We have seen Jerry give money to players like Charles Haley and Jay Novacek only to see them retire because of injury. And both players left cap hits that crippled the ability for Jones to keep the team near the top with quality free agents.

Emmitt is a warrior and as tough as they come. However, he could force the team to carry a substantial financial responsibility. Injury holds no player in esteem and Emmitt, with aging legs, could find his career ended on the very next play. Jerry has to add this to the mix when thinking on the Emmitt issue.

Yet in reviewing the 2002 season, and considering the ineptness of the offensive line, one has to wonder how many yards Emmitt would have posted behind a competent group. He is known for staying in excellent shape, yet like all backs of his age, he isn't the fastest running back on the team any longer. He will not break the 60-yarder but can post steady yards if the line can open holes. A big if in 2002.

Emmitt's future is now in the hands of others for perhaps the first time in his career. And like that old car in your garage your wife wanted sold, Emmitt may be forced out and looking at the end of his days as a Cowboy. Is Bill Parcells the wife that wants a new car and isn't interested in the memories the old one brings?

Emmitt conjures up those memories we'll never forget with simply a smile. Too many Sunday's we've watched him take what was considered less talent and force his will on other teams. There is a trophy case in Valley Ranch that holds the profit of Emmitt's determination.

And reluctantly, we may have to say goodbye to Emmitt before his days as a ball carrier are through. Because Parcells is worried more about changing the direction of the team rather than extending the career of a player that has no history with him.

But wouldn't you just love to take Emmitt out for a final spin? One last year to see what he could do. One last Super Bowl just for old times sake. Because no matter who follows, or how shiny their careers can be. Emmitt will always be number 22.

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