Smith proved the critics wrong

The timing of Emmitt Smith's impending retirement couldn't be any better.

While the Patriots are on the eve of becoming the first team of the decade in the new millennium, Smith reminded the football world of the team of the 1990s, the Dallas Cowboys. He will retire during the week Michael Irvin is up for his first vote for enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Troy Aikman, a potential first ballot Hall of Famer himself, is announcing Super Bowl XXXIX.

Smith. Irvin. Aikman.

They were the Big Three that Jimmy Johnson used to build the only team in NFL history to win three Super Bowls in four years.

The Packers dynasty was one of discipline and execution. The Steelers built their dynasty around defense and a running offense. For the 49ers, it was the precision and basketball-like passing offense devised by Bill Walsh and executed by Joe Montana.

The Cowboys brought the star system to the Super Bowls. Jimmy Johnson was the maverick coach from college who jumped up and down along the sidelines and brought back the speed on defense with his 4-3 scheme.

The star-system ruled on offense. Aikman was the classic Super Bowl quarterback with the classic pocket passing style and the big-time arm. Irvin was the flashy receiver who played more physical than his size and made big plays with flare.

And Smith was the warrior. Drafted 17th in the first round in 1990 because he supposedly lacked speed, Smith never played like a running back who had a 4.6 40 time. His style was efficient and forceful. Irvin made plays like a lightning bolt. Smith was more stealth, nothing flashy, just efficient.

Jim Brown had the power and intimidation that scared defenses. Barry Sanders embarrassed defenders with his sharp cuts and moves. Walter Payton had the high kick and the professionalism. Smith outgained and outlasted them all.

He played an incredible 226 games, starting 219 of them. He had an NFL record 18,355 yards and 164 touchdowns. His style was no-nonsense. So was his work ethic. He would get to the workout room with the Cowboys as early as 5 a.m., preparing himself year round for the season.

Emmitt Smith was one of the most reliable athletes in all of sports. He rarely had bad games, and the bigger the game, the better the performance. If defenses stacked eight in the box to stop him, Smith would lower his shoulder and bounce plays to the outside.

Yet, his longevity was incredible. He put together 11 consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. The closer he was to the end zone, the harder he was to stop. Like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux in hockey, Smith started making some stats look silly. He followed a 22-touchdown season in 1994 with a 25-touchdown season in 1995.

No matter how long he played, he didn't show his age. When most running backs started slowing down at the age of 30, Smith put together three more 1,000-yard seasons.

But one of the bad parts of the salary-cap era is that franchise players -- particularly running backs -- don't finish their careers with the teams they start with. Backs lose their negotiating value in their thirties. Teams want them to stay as starters but for close to minimum salary.

Smith was too stubborn for that. Instead of staying with the Cowboys to be Bill Parcells' minimum salary back, he left for Arizona. Though injuries robbed him of his first season with the Cardinals, Smith proved he still had the ability to run this past season. He had 937 yards in 15 starts.

He could have played a season or two more as a role player, but that's not Smith.

It was time for him to retire. Whether he gets involved with future NFL ownership or business-related activities, Smith leaves the game laughing at those initial scouting reports.

For a back who was supposed to be too slow, no one could catch him or stop him. Unlike many, he retired on his own terms. In five years, he should be rewarded as a first ballot Hall of Famer.

At that point, Smith, Aikman and Irvin will be reunited on the same team.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.