Vikings RB Smith runs into retirement
Updated: Wednesday February 07, 2001 5:29 PM
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- Once again, Robert Smith has eluded his pursuers.
The agent for Smith, 28, confirmed Wednesday that Smith is retiring after eight seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. He is leaving the NFL at the top of his game -- much like a 31-year-old Barry Sanders before the 1999 season -- and at the height of his earning power as an unrestricted free agent.
Smith, who announced his decision in a brief statement Tuesday to The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, let his reasons for leaving remain a mystery. In the statement, Smith thanked his family and friends, fans and the Vikings organization.
"I also wanted to thank my teammates and coaches for believing in me throughout my career," he said.
Vikings head coach Dennis Green said Smith will be missed.
"Robert has always been a guy that the National Football League has been able to count on as a shining example of quality character off the field and 100 percent effort on the field," Green said in a statement. "Robert's decision to retire, as everyone knows, comes off his best season ever as a running back for the Minnesota Vikings. He leaves the game on top and is looking forward to his next challenge."
Smith's agent, Neil Cornrich, dismissed the idea that the often-injured back, who recently underwent a third knee surgery, was tired of the pounding.
"He could easily play five more years without jeopardizing his health," Cornrich said. "He just decided to go in another direction at this point."
That direction is uncertain, although Smith has said he might consider a career as a medical researcher. He pursued a history degree with a strong emphasis on science at Ohio State and is interested in a variety of topics such as calculus, molecular genetics and classical music.
Earlier this season, he said he thought he would be in medical school by now.
"I enjoy football more than I thought I would,'"Smith told the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. "I honestly didn't think I would play as long as I have. But once you're out there and enjoying it, it's completely different."
Smith, the Vikings' first-round pick in 1993, led the NFC by rushing for 1,521 yards in his first complete 16-game season and broke the organization's career rushing record held by Chuck Foreman, with 6,818 yards. He rushed for 32 touchdowns and averaged 4.8 yards per carry during his career despite battling a number of injuries and health problems, such as injuries to both knees and ankles and a serious case of chicken pox.
He was considered the NFL's leading free-agent running back and was expected to sign a contract that would have exceeded his last five-year, $25 million deal.
Cornrich said he had been optimistic that Smith, who had a good relationship with Green, would re-sign with the team despite the organization's salary cap limitations and the lure of the open market. Cornrich said Smith wasn't concerned about walking away from a big free-agent payday.
"He would've had unlimited financial opportunities," Cornrich said. "But this was not a financial decision."
Smith was deeply disappointed, however, by the Vikings' 41-0 loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game and by the final two months of his season, in which he rushed for only 248 yards in five games.
He was selected to the Pro Bowl but did not play because of knee surgery.
The Vikings had made re-signing Smith a top priority, though they are expected to have to cut about $20 million to meet the 2001 salary cap limit.
Smith's backup, Moe Williams, rushed for only 67 yards last season. The Vikings could use the money they had planned to spend on Smith on another top free-agent back such as the Cincinnati Bengals' Corey Dillon or the San Francisco 49ers' Charlie Garner. Dillon rushed for 1,453 yards last season, and Garner rushed for 1,142.
The Vikings also could try to trade for a player such as the Green Bay Packers' Dorsey Levens, who was injured for much of the 2000 season and might be expendable following the emergence of Ahman Green.
The top running backs available in the NFL draft, Deuce McAllister of Mississippi and Michael Bennett of Wisconsin, are unlikely to be available to the Vikings with the 27th pick of the draft. The Vikings, who also need to use the draft to address defensive needs, could trade up for McAllister or Bennett or use an early pick on a running back such as LaDainian Tomlinson of Texas Christian, LaMont Jordan of Maryland, Travis Henry of Tennessee or Anthony Thomas of Michigan.