Emmitt Smith has the NFL's all-time rushing record, but he now lacks something essential to every football player:
Smith was released Thursday after 13 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, cast aside in favor of Troy Hambrick, his younger, cheaper understudy. The move was expected -- Smith's salary-cap figure for next season would have been $9.8 million -- yet it's the highest-profile parting of the ways since San Francisco let go of Jerry Rice after the 2000 season.
"This burns the bridges," Cowboy owner Jerry Jones said, sitting next to Smith at a news conference. "There's no looking back. We have to get it done without him. This is not a happy day for me personally. This is not a red-letter day for the Dallas Cowboys."
Jones seemed to take the decision harder than Smith and twice was near tears during the news conference. At one point, Smith consoled him by wrapping his left arm around him. Jones stared straight ahead with hands clasped.
Smith had a chance to stay with the team. Jones said he offered him a contract that "greatly exceeded" the league minimum, but both he and Smith eventually came to the decision it would be best to part ways. Smith said he never had a meaningful conversation with new Cowboy Coach Bill Parcells, speaking to him only once in passing.
Now, Smith has gone the way of Troy Aikman and Deion Sanders, both of whom were released by the Cowboys.
The Cowboys weren't the only ones cutting ties this week with marquee players. Pittsburgh released quarterback Kordell Stewart, Washington cut running back Stephen Davis and San Diego bid adieu to receiver Curtis Conway and safety Rodney Harrison.
This year's class of free agents officially hit the open market Thursday at 9:01 p.m. PST. Among those players are Tampa Bay safety Dexter Jackson, the Super Bowl MVP; Arizona receiver David Boston, defensive ends Hugh Douglas of Philadelphia and Vonnie Holiday of Green Bay, and Oakland defensive tackle Sam Adams.
Those players notwithstanding, Charley Casserly, general manager of the Houston Texans, said he wasn't expecting a bumper crop of free agents this off-season.
"I just think every year it gets thinner," he said. "I think you'll see signings, probably of the better players early, and then I think the thing will slow down to a screeching halt. I don't see the mass market out there that agents are indicating to me."
There is, however, one legendary player on the list -- one who had helped power the Cowboy offense since 1990. Despite breaking the rushing record of Chicago Bear legend Walter Payton last season, Smith had only two 100-yard games and gained fewer than 1,000 yards for the first season since he was a rookie. He finished with 975 yards and an average of 3.8 yards a carry, second-lowest of his career.
Regardless, Smith said he believes he can still be a featured back and is not ready to retire.
"In my mind, I think I'm a 1,300-yard back, and I will be out to prove that," said Smith, looking like a Cowboy to the very end with a dark blue suit, white shirt and blue tie.
The Cowboys are coming off their third consecutive 5-11 season and are hoping Parcells will return the franchise to the dominance it enjoyed in the early 1990s. With Smith gone, the only remaining player link to that era is safety Darren Woodson, who played on the Cowboy championship teams in 1992, '93 and '95.
Parcells conducted his first team meeting with Cowboy players Wednesday and Smith wasn't involved. He was in Austin, where the Texas legislature honored him for contributions on and off the field. At the time, he hadn't ruled out a backup role with the Cowboys or another NFL team.
"I will weigh all options, that much I will do," he said the day before being released.
Smith, who turns 34 in May, finished his Dallas career with 17,162 yards rushing, and has said he wants to keep running until he surpasses 20,000.
He will still count $4.9 million against next season's cap. The Cowboys could have spread that out over two seasons by releasing him after June 1, but that would have lessened his chances of getting the kind of deal he wants with another team.
"There is no doubt in my mind that Emmitt Smith can make a significant contribution to winning in the NFL today," Jones said.
Hambrick, 25, has rushed for 924 yards in three seasons with the Cowboys, 317 last season in backing up Smith. After the team meeting with Parcells, Hambrick said he wanted to establish himself as a team leader.
"The future looks bright for me," Hambrick said. "I accept any challenge."
For Smith, the challenge is finding a place where he can rekindle his career. It could be in Oakland, where the Raiders pride themselves in providing second chances to aging stars; or in Tampa Bay, close to his boyhood home of Pensacola, Fla.; or in Carolina, where Lamar Smith led the Panthers in rushing with only 737 yards last season.
There's only one certainty: Smith is out of Dallas.