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FOR RB’S, HITS, NOT YEARS, COUNT

SHARE FOR RB’S, HITS, NOT YEARS, COUNT

Lost in the furor surrounding the benching of Emmitt Smith last Sunday in Dallas' loss to the Giants was that New York's franchise running back, Rodney Hampton, also was benched for a large part of the game.

Granted, Hampton isn't Smith. Nor does Sherman Williams, Smith's replacement, have the pedigree of Tyrone Wheatley, who is replacing Hampton, Wheatley was the Giants' No. 1 pick last year and only injuries have prevented him from playing more.But both cases demonstrate one of the NFL's axioms: a running back's longevity is usually measured by hits taken, not by years.

Both Smith, who followed his benching with a season-high 155 yards and three touchdowns Thursday against the Washington Redskins, and Hampton are in their seventh seasons. And while Smith's career has been more glamorous, Hampton has become New York's career leading rusher and needs fewer than 300 yards to post his sixth straight 1,000-yard season.

Smith is 27. He has carried the ball 2,331 times and caught 285 passes in seven seasons - a total of 2,616 hits. That doesn't count the number of times he's been hit while blocking, and he does block.

Hampton is also 27. He's had 1,791 carries and caught 171 passes, or 1,962 hits. He's also picked up a lot of blitzes, and his inside, straight-up running style makes him even more vulnerable than Smith.

The fact is that few star running backs perform well beyond 30. Of course, there are prominent exceptions, like Walter Payton and the man who broke his rushing touchdown record Thursday, 36-year-old Marcus Allen.

Allen's longevity may have been helped by the fact that had was given a rest of sorts between 1989 and 1992.

During that span, he carried just 378 times, two fewer than the 380 he had during all of the 1985 season in which he was named the league MVP. Then with the Raiders, Allen didn't get the ball much at the direction of owner Al Davis, who considered him "a cancer" on the team.

CHANGE OF HEART?: Following the Giants' 20-6 win over Dallas, there's a movement afoot to keep coach Dan Reeves.

Reeves had been perhaps the most likely of any NFL coach to go after this season, even though he has a year left on his contract at $1 million a year.

The problem is not coaching ability. Reeves remains well-regarded around the NFL.

But his running dispute with the personnel department and general manager George Young almost cost him his job last year. The fact that he wasn't even informed of the team's intention to sign troubled defensive lineman Christian Peter seemed to seal his fate this season.

But just recently, there have been indications Reeves may yet stick around.

His players gave him a game ball after Sunday's win, one that Reeves said touched him more than any he had ever received.

"A coach usually gets these when he's on top, not the bottom," he said.

The team's two owners declared publicly that Reeves' fate had not been decided.

When Wellington Mara was asked if Reeves had a chance to return, he said: "Sure, no one ever said there wasn't."

A day later, co-owner Bob Tisch came out even more strongly in support of Reeves.

"All things being equal, Dan will fulfill his contract," Tisch said.

ROOKIE HOOPLA: Lost in the hype surrounding Miami rookie Zach Thomas, the fifth-round draft choice that Jimmy Johnson made an instant star at middle linebacker in Miami, are a couple of very good defensive rookies.

One is Simeon Rice, the third overall pick in the draft, who's been a major factor in Arizona's return to respectability. Despite a long holdout, he has 81/2 sacks, or 31/2 more than Reggie White.

Another is Tony Brackens of Jacksonville, who fell to the second round because he was considered too small at 260 pounds to be a full-time defensive end. He has five sacks and also has excelled against the run.

Thomas, meanwhile, is playing in a system that ensures the middle linebacker will reach double-digits in tackles in most games. And he still makes rookie mistakes, like reacting too quickly and overpursuing.