IRVING, Texas (AP) _ Back when he was winning four rushing titles in five years and helping the Dallas Cowboys win Super Bowls in three of those seasons, Emmitt Smith never even considered playing anywhere else.
Even late last season, when it became apparent that his 13-year run in Dallas might be ending, he still found it hard to imagine. He joked in December that he owned uniforms of all the other teams and had tried them all on just to see which looked best.
Now Smith has to try picturing it for real.
Smith and the Cowboys parted ways Thursday, making the leading rusher in NFL history a free agent for the first time. The signing period begins Friday, but he'll likely need much longer to decide what his new helmet looks like.
``This is a new experience,'' he said. ``I don't know what the future has in store for me. I need to weigh all my options. From a business standpoint and a family standpoint.''
One option far from his mind is retirement.
``I still have a love and passion for the game,'' he said. ``I think I'm a 1,300-yard back, and I will be out to prove that.''
Smith knew trying to prove it in Dallas just wouldn't work. The team is in transition, and it's time for the Cowboys to go on without him.
New coach Bill Parcells is taking over and if Smith stuck around he was sure there'd be controversy about his role. Then again, the Cowboys might not have wanted him to be part of their rebuilding from three straight 5-11 seasons.
Rather than put owner Jerry Jones in the awkward position of cutting him, Smith volunteered to be released.
``In my mind, the best thing would be for me to move myself out of the equation, to do what it takes to move this organization back in the right direction,'' he said.
``I could be very selfish and stubborn and play the role of a man of power and stand in the way, hinder growth. That's not me. I've always been a team player.''
He came to that conclusion during a Feb. 17 meeting at Jones' house that lasted more than three hours. Smith called it a ``win-win situation.''
Smith's status already was in doubt because of his contract and age. He turns 34 in May and was due a base salary of $7 million next season, with a salary-cap figure of $9.8 million. He will still count for $4.9 million against next season's cap.
``As an organization, we've got to start thinking of life without Emmitt,'' Jones said. ``This is not a happy day for me personally. This is not a red-letter day for the Dallas Cowboys.''
Smith hasn't cracked 1,300 in three seasons. He had 975 last season, failing to reach 1,000 for the first time since he was a rookie. He had only two 100-yard games and a paltry average of 3.8 yards per carry.
But Smith is still in great shape _ he's missed only four games in his career because of injury _ and is confident he can add to his NFL-record totals of 17,162 yards; 4,052 carries; and 153 rushing touchdowns.
He'd love doing it on a team that can provide a good line and a chance to earn a fourth Super Bowl ring, such as NFL champion Tampa Bay, which happens to be in his home state, or the Oakland Raiders, a refuge of late for aging superstars. Other options could include New England and Carolina.
Smith may have to choose between a small role on a good team or a big role on a bad one. Playing time also will be a consideration.
``The star may be gone, but the football player is still here,'' he said. ``Somebody will give me a call.''
Smith was so at ease with how things worked out that the news conference announcing he was essentially fired felt more like a celebration.
He was all smiles when he walked into the team meeting room wearing a Cowboys' blue pinstriped suit and matching tie. He thanked fans for ``a great ride'' and presented Jones with one of the helmets, cleats, jerseys and gloves he wore the day he passed Walter Payton on the career rushing list.
Smith reached out to shake hands with Jones, but Jones hugged him instead.
``Thank you,'' Smith said. ``I love you.''
Smith could still end up with the Cowboys in some capacity after his playing days officially end. Business manager/adviser Werner Scott acknowledged ``there's an opportunity to be together again in the future.''
``Let's just say we've had very positive discussions with Jerry and those discussions range from a variety of areas,'' Scott said. ``There's a good spirit and good feeling between those two guys.''