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When is right time for stars to retire?

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Say what you will about Al Davis, he has a sense of history and a soft spot for history makers.

So he probably knew that at 42, Jerry Rice had lost most of what makes him the best receiver in NFL history. But he wasn't about to release him, talking to at least five teams about trading for Rice, who was mouldering with Davis' Raiders.

"We accepted the trade out of respect for Jerry," Davis said after he finally got Seattle to take Rice for a conditional seventh-round draft pick. "We wanted to accommodate Jerry. This is best for him and best for this team."

Allowing a superstar to retire gracefully is difficult in all sports. Babe Ruth, after all, left baseball not as a Yankee but as a Boston Brave. Cal Ripken kept playing day after day, night after night to extend his consecutive game streak even when it seemed to be hurting the Baltimore Orioles.

But it can be especially difficult in the NFL, where roster turnover is constant.

The salary cap is the common reason cited when today's stars leave a team with which they've spent their entire careers. But that was happening long before the cap came to the NFL.

John Unitas spent his final season in San Diego and Joe Namath finished as a Ram. Joe Montana went to Kansas City and teammate Ronnie Lott went from the 49ers to the Raiders and then the Jets. Franco Harris ended his career in Seattle after playing on four Super Bowl winners in Pittsburgh, playing until the pain was so bad he was forced to retire during the 1984 season.

And Deion Sanders is back in the NFL with the Ravens at 37, three years after "retiring."

"You know you're in that special category of stars when they start comparing you to yourself," says Gene Upshaw, a Hall of Fame guard for the Raiders before becoming executive director of the NFL players union.

"That's exactly what they are doing with Deion now and it's what they've done to a lot others, including Jerry. They'll say 'He's still pretty good, but he's not Jerry Rice.' "

Upshaw also thinks the desire to hang on comes from exactly the factor that makes a superstar a superstar — perseverance.

"When I saw Jerry going to Seattle, I was saddened," says Upshaw, who played 15 seasons and retired at age 36. "But it's also what made him as great as he is. He works and works and works and feels if he keeps on working he can still be better than most players."

The timing of the Rice trade coincides with Seattle's game at Arizona, which puts him up against another superstar who should have retired earlier: Emmitt Smith. It marks the first meeting involving the NFL's leading career rusher and leading pass-catcher since 1984, when Chicago with Walter Payton, played San Diego, with Charlie Joiner.

Smith broke Payton's record in 2002 at age 34, ancient for a running back. Then he was released by Dallas, with whom he had spent his entire career, 13 seasons to that point.

The only team interested was Arizona, largely because Smith might be a gate attraction (it didn't work because no one ever goes to see the Cardinals, only the opponent). He missed six games in 2003 with a shoulder injury and started just five, averaging just 2.8 yards per carry, a yard lower than his previous career worst.

But he came back this year and is playing pretty well under new coach Dennis Green even though the Cardinals remain the Cardinals at 1-4.

Both Smith and Rice will be Hall of Famers — and this comes from a Hall of Fame voter who loathes references to ANYONE as "a future Hall of Famer." So will Bruce Smith, who stayed in the league until he was 40 for no other reason than to break the career sacks record — a fraudulent mark anyway because sacks have been an official statistic only since 1981 and who knows how many sacks Doug Atkins or Deacon Jones racked up?

But maybe Barry Sanders, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame last summer after retiring at the peak of his career, had it right.

Hanging on as an average player is not the right route for the best of the best.

Dirty Dozen

The top six and bottom six teams based on current level of play:

1. New England (5-0). Someone always make a game-winning play.

2. Philadelphia (5-0). Average margin of victory is 14 points.

3. Indianapolis (5-1). The defense is playing well enough to provide the offense with a comfort zone.

4. Denver (5-1). Terrell Davis, Olandis Gary, Mike Anderson, Clinton Portis . . . Reuben Droughns.

5. New York Jets (5-0). The teams they've beaten are 6-22, but "W" is all that counts.

6. Minnesota (5-1) Culpepper is on track to shatter a bunch of single-season passing records.

Bottom Six

27. San Francisco (1-5). Competitive but green.

28. Buffalo (1-4). Don't move up too far by beating Miami.

29. Chicago (1-4). Might be better if Grossman hadn't been hurt.

30. Cincinnati (1-4). Back to the past.

31. Arizona (1-4). Some signs of progress. But we've seen that before.

32. Miami (0-6). A glimmer of hope: the Cardinals come to town Nov. 7.