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Vikings RB Smith runs into retirement

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Posted: Wednesday February 07, 2001 9:45 AM
Updated: Wednesday February 07, 2001 5:29 PM

  Robert Smith Robert Smith has rushed for 6,818 yards and 32 touchdowns in eight seasons as a Viking. Tom Pidgeon/Allsport

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."

How does Robert Smithís surprise retirement impact the Vikings as they plan for the 2001 season? Let us count the ways:

  • Smithís departure could in fact turn into a positive for Minnesota, in that it will now be able to spend more of its very limited resources on defense, which is the teamís crying need. Vikings head coach Dennis Green made no secret that re-signing Smith was the teamís top priority in free agency. But as good as Smith is, it shouldnít have been. The Vikings now get to make the wiser call of spending the millions that Smith would have received on upgrading the unit that was humiliated in Minnesotaís 41-0 NFC title-game loss at the New York Giants.

    Free-agent outside linebacker Dwayne Rudd figures to be the biggest benefactor from Smithís retirement. With Smith in the picture, the Vikings knew they had next to no chance of affording Rudd. With Smith gone, the chances of Rudd remaining in purple rises dramatically.
    The Vikings still must trim about $19 million from their salary cap total and wonít be able to afford free-agent defensive end help in the class of Miamiís Jason Taylor or Buffaloís Marcellus Wiley. But Minnesota now will be able to dip into the cornerback market, which is the teamís other glaring deficiency. In the end, Smithís retirement may do more to help balance out the Vikingsí offense-heavy payroll than anything Green could have executed.

  • With Smith gone, the Vikings will finally force themselves to rely on a younger, less expensive lead running back. With Leroy Hoard a year removed from the picture, the job will fall to Moe Williams, a 1996 third-round pick who has collected mostly dust since entering the league. Williams rushed for 67 yards on 23 carries last year, giving him a grand total of 151 yards in five NFL seasons.

    It will be Williamsí job to lose entering training camp. He will be backed up by Doug Chapman, a third-round pick in 2000 who was inactive for his entire rookie season. Donít look for Minnesota to make a big-name signing at running back in free agency. Itís more like that the Vikings will wait until camp to sign any help at the position, if they feel Williams and Chapman arenít cutting it. Bringing Hoard back as an insurance policy after a year out of the game may not be out of the question.

  • In the past three weeks, the Vikings have seen some of their longtime stars in the news: Cris Carter announces heíll return for another year; John Randle asks for a trade in acknowledgement that he has played his final game for the team; and Smith abruptly retires. Make no mistake, that changes the leadership quotient in Greenís locker room.

    Smith and Randle were two heavily counted upon leaders by the rest of the roster. Many players followed their cue. With the Randy Moss factor already providing Green a challenge in the locker room, and Carterís presence viewed by some to be an extension of the head coach, the Vikings will need someone to fill the leadership void. More than ever, it will fall to players like quarterback Daunte Culpepper and strong safety Robert Griffith to hold things together in a room that has had its share of troubles the past two years.

    --Don Banks, Sports Illustrated 

    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.

    Related information
    SI's Don Banks: Vikings RB Smith goes against the grain
    Multimedia's Don Banks is very surprised by Robert Smith's retirement, but thinks Smith has many options outside football. (364 K)
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