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SMITH'S GOAL IS FORWARD PROGRESS <br> CARDINALS' STAR RUSHER REFUSES TO LOOK BACK

The statistics are startling, but he didn't want to talk about numbers. He has a space waiting for him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he didn't want to discuss his place in history. He's much closer to the end of his career than the beginning, but he didn't want to talk about retirement.

Whatever works for Emmitt Smith.

Two years removed from the Dallas Cowboys, he still looks out of place in Arizona Cardinals red. He owns nearly every meaningful rushing record, but the only carry that concerns him is his next one. He seems unwilling to look back because he might get tackled by what's ahead. It's been his approach for 15 seasons.

"I'm getting prepared to play (Buffalo)," Smith said during a conference call. "It's not the time to reflect on what my career has been like. Everything I've done in my last 15 years is spoken for. It's already done."

Last week, he gained more than 100 yards for the 78th time in his career, moving him past the late Walter Payton for the most all time. He has rushed for more than 100 yards twice in the past three games. He has five touchdowns in six games, including a 23-yard score with 44 seconds left in a 25-17 win over Seattle last week.

The Cardinals are 2-4, but mostly because they're young and inexperienced -- not because their running back is old. Smith has 459 yards rushing, seventh in the NFC, and he's gaining 4.2 yards per carry this season. Apparently, he wasn't washed up after leaving Dallas as his critics suggested. He might be past his prime at age 35, but he's still among the better backs in the NFL.

"He was such a fabulous player," Cardinals coach Dennis Green said. "He has runs that I like to call 'classic Emmitt Smith runs.' He makes guys miss and, when they miss, he always has his shoulders going upfield. He can take a 4-yard gain and turn it into a touchdown very quickly. It's a classic run where a guy is getting a bead on him, misses him and there's nothing there. And into the end zone he goes."

It's something teams have witnessed for years in a mind-numbing career that might never be matched. He's the NFL's all-time leading rusher with 17,877 yards. He led the league in rushing four times, including three straight years. He was the first player to gain 1,400 yards rushing in five straight seasons. He was the first to gain 1,000 yards in 11 consecutive seasons.

He's the all-time leader with 160 touchdowns rushing. He's won three Super Bowls, has been selected to eight Pro Bowls and was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player. He once said he wanted to be the first back to gain 20,000 yards rushing. He would need to play one more full season just to have a chance, but he could surpass 19,000 yards in this, what could be his last season.

"He's one of those guys like Jerry Rice," said Bills safety Izell Reese, who played with Smith for four seasons in Dallas. "Every blue moon, one comes around at different positions. He's the guy at running back.

"You think about any position where you take a beating, and more than any it's running back. He has a target on his head. For a guy to do that, and to be that effective for this long in his career, and to still be healthy and put up those types of numbers . . . it's astonishing."

Smith was far more interested in concentrating on the Bills' defense than talking about his career accomplishments. The Bills have the NFL's fifth-rated defense and are third against the run. They will need to contain Smith if they're going to beat the Cardinals on Sunday in Ralph Wilson Stadium.

"These boys are all over the field," he said. "They do a great job of stopping the run. They've got great team defensive speed. They're very aggressive. They're hard hitting. That's why they're at the top. Our job is very tough this weekend, and we know it."

Smith gained just 25 yards on 15 carries when he last played against the Bills in 1996, when receiver Eric Moulds was a rookie. Just think, the 8,625 yards Smith has gained since his last visit to Orchard Park would place him third on the Bills' all-time rushing list behind Thurman Thomas and O.J. Simpson.

Of course, Smith has his own place in Bills history, too. He was a key figure on the two Cowboys teams that beat the Bills in consecutive Super Bowls. He gained more than 100 yards in both. He was named Most Valuable Player in Super Bowl XXVIII after scoring two touchdowns in the second half of Dallas' 30-13 victory.

"I just play the game," Smith said. "Whatever record falls throughout the course of me playing the game, that's what it is. I'm playing to win, No. 1. I'm playing to have fun, No. 2. The focus is trying to win a lot of games so we can get to the playoffs and hopefully make it someday to the Super Bowl."

Cornerback Terrence McGee was back on the practice field Friday as the Bills prepared for the Cards. He had been nursing a sore ankle but looked fine during workouts held in the stadium. He's expected to play Sunday.

Center Trey Teague (knee) did not practice and was listed as doubtful on the weekly injury report. Offensive tackle Marcus Price (knee) and wideout Drew Haddad (hamstring) were listed as questionable. J.P. Losman (leg) practiced but was listed as doubtful along with Troy Vincent (knee), who missed the workout.

Left tackle Jonas Jennings (ankle) was listed as probable and should play.
e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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