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Patriots wave good-bye to Smith

The Patriots declined to pick up Antowain Smith's option, making the veteran running back a free agent.

Even Super Bowl success doesn't interfere with business. Seven days after capturing their second world championship in three seasons, the Patriots waved good-bye to running back Antowain Smith, who ran 26 times for 83 yards in the Super Bowl XXXVIII win over the Carolina Panthers on Feb. 1.

The Patriots elected not to exercise their option on Smith, which would have required a $500,000 bonus payment. The seven-year veteran is now a free agent.

"In his three seasons with the Patriots, Antowain played a significant role in our team's overall success," said Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick. "He is a true professional. On behalf of the entire organization, we wish him continued success in the future."

Smith, 31, gained 2,781 yards in three seasons with New England and led the team in rushing all three years. His best season came back in 2001 when he gained 1,157 yards on 287 carries with 12 touchdowns. He followed that with 982 yards on 252 carries and six scores in 2002 before gaining only 642 yards on 182 attempts with three touchdowns this past season.

Even with modest, at best, production, Smith was instrumental in the team's two championships, stepping up his performance late in each season. He gained 447 yards on 149 attempts in his first 14 games in 2003 before gaining another 447 on 97 carries in his last five games, including three in the postseason. He had his first career 100-yard postseason rushing effort in the 2003 AFC Championship Game win over the Colts and scored his first career Super Bowl touchdown in the win over Carolina.

In 2001, Smith gained 800 of his 1,157 yards in the final nine games of the season before adding another 204 in the playoffs, including 92 in the Super Bowl XXXVI win over the Rams.

Smith was originally drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the first round of the 1997 NFL draft (23rd overall). After four seasons with the Bills, he signed with the Patriots as a veteran free agent in June of 2001.

Following a successful 2001 season in which the big, bruising back grew stronger as the season progressed, Smith signed a five-year contract extension with the Patriots, but the pact included team options, the first of which called for the $500,000 bonus payment required seven days after the Patriots last game in 2003.

Smith's production, which was inconsistent during his tenure, simply wasn't enough to save his job given his price tag. He failed to nail down the lead back job in 2003 until late in the year, splitting work with Kevin Faulk for most of the season. He would have cost the Patriots $3.9 million against the salary cap in 2004, according to NFLPA documents. He is still on the books for 2004 for the unamortized portion of his signing bonus and for any Super Bowl incentive bonus he may have received that would not have counted against the 2003 cap.

The Patriots backfield will likely be facing a major overhaul and Smith's departure may only be the beginning. Nearly every other back on the roster –Faulk, Mike Cloud, Patrick Pass and Larry Centers – is scheduled to become a free agent in March. Only fullback Fred McCrary remains under contract.

The Patriots could try to re-sign Smith for less money, but coming off a strong postseason and a Super Bowl title, he is likely to test the market looking for a better deal. If he doesn't receive any adequate offers and the Patriots are dissatisfied with their backfield situation come June, they could look to re-sign him, although that would seem unlikely at this point.

In seven NFL seasons, Smith has now rushed for 5,713 yards and 47 touchdowns (3.9 avg.) on 1,481 carries.

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