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Veteran runners put up big numbers

His 11-yard run over left end late in the third quarter of the Arizona Cardinals' regular-season opener Sunday marked only the 11th time in Emmitt Smith's last 43 games that the NFL career leading rusher had found the end zone.

Whether it also meant that Smith had discovered a fountain of youth, or signaled that his 35-year-old legs still have a final 1,000-yard season left in them, remains to be seen. But for one day, at least, Smith debunked the notion that, for NFL running backs, life all but ends at age 30.

And, in the opening weekend of the schedule, Smith, who posted six runs of 10 yards or more on his way to an 87-yard outing, had some company.

OK, so Sunday probably didn't mark the dawn of a golden age for the NFL's goldenager tailbacks. But with Smith netting 87 yards, Curtis Martin of the New York Jets blasting through the Cincinnati defense for 196 yards, and St. Louis' Marshall Faulk dancing for 128 yards versus the Cardinals, some of the league's elder statesmen tailbacks perhaps served notice they are still a cut above usable despite the contentions of the legion of skeptics that considers them used up.

"There were times I looked out there and wondered why, at this point in his life and with everything he has accomplished, he is still playing," said Faulk of Smith, whose play he scrutinized from the opposite sideline on Sunday. "And then, he ripped off a few runs in the classic Emmitt style, and I thought, 'Well, it's because the man still can play.' None of us are as good as we were a year ago, maybe even a day ago, but we can still get the job done, all right?"

The age-defying performance by Smith was the first time the 15th-year veteran had rushed for more than 50 yards since the second game of last season. It also represented his top production since a 144-yard performance versus the Washington Redskins on Nov. 28, 2002.

Smith, who hasn't rushed for 1,000 yards since the 2001 season, is on an early pace for 1,392 yards, which would be his best year since 1999. Setting the pace early, of course, does not guarantee Smith will even be around at the finish line, and the broken scapula that cost him six games last season is all the reminder anyone needs to demonstrate that he is no longer an iron man.

Then again, Smith and some of the other graybeards at the tailback position demonstrated steely determination in Week 1 of the schedule, and maybe it can carry them through. Typically, the chronological line of demarcation for a running back, the threshold age at which production begins to wane, is 30. Yet no one has suggested that Priest Holmes of Kansas City, who will actually turn 31 in three weeks, had entered his football dotage.

Certainly, the seven starting tailbacks in the league who are aged 30 or older are fighting pretty long odds, as well as pretty stark history. Some of them, like Tampa Bay's Charlie Garner and Eddie George of Dallas, looked last weekend as if the gas tank was nearing "E" and they were running on just fumes and memories. But in turning back the clock last weekend, runners like Smith and Martin and Faulk turned a few heads, and reminded that they are still capable of standout performances.

No performance was better than that of Martin, 31, whose 196 yards established a Jets opening-day record for rushing excellence. How notable was Martin's output: Last year, it took him four games to rush for 197 yards, the poorest start of his career. Part of that 2003 slump, Martin publicly suggested in camp this summer, was the lack of work that he had in preseason play.

Martin demanded the ball more in exhibition games this summer and head coach Herman Edwards acquiesced. In one contest, Martin logged 13 carries, a key number since he had just 12 attempts during the entire '03 preseason. Arguably the most unheralded great back in recent league history, and just 210 yards shy of sliding into the No. 10 slot among the all-time leading rushers, Martin, termed "a marvel" by New York general manager Terry Bradway, has never failed to run for 1,000 yards in a season.

No reason to believe his résumé won't include a ninth consecutive 1,000-yard campaign. In fact, Martin has suggested that, coming off a spring and summer in which he really tested himself and prepared harder than he has in years, there is still plenty of tread left on his tires.

"It's about mind over matter and, in my mind, the age thing really doesn't matter to me," Martin said after shredding the Bengals defense. "I feel good mentally and physically. I think I can still play at a high level. Yeah, this is still a young man's game, but there are still some of us old hands getting it done."

In truth, though, not many of them.

The average age of the 32 tailbacks who started in the Week 1 contests was 27.1. Of that group, 14 are 25 or younger and five are 23 or younger. As is the case annually at the outset of a season, there were young tailbacks, like Quentin Griffin of Denver and Chris Brown of Tennessee, who seemed to emerge as rising stars.

But one of the story lines that came out of last weekend, and which now bears scrutiny for the balance of the season, was the productivity of the older tailbacks. In that subset, Faulk merits attention because, in reducing his workload with first-round draft choice Steven Jackson, the Rams could well extend the career and the brilliance of a player who now ranks 13th on the all-time rushing list and eighth in total yards from scrimmage.

Having missed 11 games in two seasons, coming off a pair of knee surgeries over the past 11 months, Faulk was being treated in some quarters like he was just a hanger-on. But in running for 128 yards and registering 143 total yards from scrimmage, Faulk, 31, showed that the whispers of his imminent demise were premature.

"Watching him," noted Rams safety Aeneas Williams, another of the team's seemingly ageless stars, "is like seeing a portrait in motion."

Maybe the picture will never be as pretty this season for the over-30 running backs as it was on opening day. The position, after all, has the shortest average career shelf-life of any spot in the lineup, NFL Players Association studies have confirmed. And even Faulk allowed that a running back can "lose it," suddenly misplacing that half-step burst that sets the great ones apart, in a blink.

"But there are always the exceptions," Faulk said. "And I think, in the case of some of the older [backs] in the league, well, we're among those exceptions."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.