Smith said he was not ready to retire.
"In my mind, I think I'm a 1,300-yard back, and I will be out to prove that," Smith said.
He was released to make way for a younger, cheaper running back for the Cowboys, who have been 5-11 for the last three seasons. It's the first major roster shakeup since Bill Parcells took over as coach, although team owner Jerry Jones has made it clear it was his decision.
"It is with great emotion that I announce that Emmitt Smith will not be a part of the 2003 Dallas Cowboys football team," Jones said at a news conference. "As an organization we have got to start thinking about life without Emmitt at running back."
The timing gets Smith on the market for the start of free agency; teams can begin signing players Friday.
Smith's status has been in doubt for months 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'll still count $4.9 million against next season's cap. Had Dallas waited until June 1, Smith would've counted $2.8 million against the 2003 cap, with the remaining $2.1 million hitting in 2004.
Smith would love to go to a team that can provide a good line and a chance to earn a fourth Super Bowl ring, such as Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay, in his home state, or the Oakland Raiders, who often provide jobs for aging superstars.
Whether those teams want him or could offer enough playing time to satisfy him remains to be seen. Smith may have to choose between a small role on a good team or a big role on a bad one.
Smith said he believes he can still be a featured back, despite failing to gain 1,000 yards last season for the first time since he was a rookie. He had 975, with only two 100-yard games and a paltry average of 3.8 yards per carry.
"There is no doubt in my mind that Emmitt Smith can make a significant contribution to winning in the NFL today," Jones said.
Smith has missed only four games because of injury in his career and remains in good shape. He's said he wants to keep running until he passes 20,000 yards; his career total is 17,162.
Smith hasn't cracked 1,300 yards the past three seasons. He's been hampered, though, by a tattered line and a passing game that's been among the league's worst.
The Cowboys tried phasing Smith out last season after he passed Walter Payton on the career rushing list. Realizing his Dallas days might be ending, Smith pried the nameplate off his locker at team headquarters before leaving for the season finale.
Troy Hambrick moves up to No. 1 on the Cowboys' depth chart, but certainly won't be handed the job. Dallas has the fifth pick in the upcoming draft and could sign a proven veteran in free agency, such as Stephen Davis, released Wednesday by Washington.
While Smith was cut with an eye on the future, his departure severs the final link to a celebrated part of the team's past.
Smith, Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin were stars of an offense that led Dallas to three Super Bowl championships in the 1990s. Known as "The Triplets," they began breaking up when Irvin retired in 1999 because of a neck injury. Aikman was cut after the 2000 season.
Smith's departure makes safety Darren Woodson the final player left from Dallas' championship teams in 1992, '93 and '95.
Regardless of whether Smith continues his career elsewhere, he'll always be remembered as a Cowboy.
"He will forever be a part of the Dallas Cowboys," Jones said. "I mean that more than as a legacy."
Drafted 17th in 1990, he instantly clicked with Aikman and Irvin to fuel Dallas' resurgence from 1-15 the season before he arrived to Super Bowl champs his third season.
Defying critics who said he was too small and slow, Smith won rushing titles in 1991, '92, '93 and '95, and was the MVP of the '93 regular season and the Super Bowl that followed. His combination of individual achievement and team success is unprecedented for a running back.
In addition to the rushing yardage record, he holds NFL rushing marks for career attempts, touchdowns in a season and in a career, and for 1,000-yard seasons. He holds postseason rushing records for yards, touchdowns and 100-yard games.
He's third behind Jerry Rice and Payton in yards from scrimmage and second to Rice in career touchdowns. He's one 100-yard rushing game from tying Payton for tops in that category.
While his records are sometimes knocked as being byproducts of longevity and a dominant line, Smith's supporters — including many of the greatest backs of all-time — credit him for capitalizing on his advantages and for remaining healthy. Few elite running backs have stayed in the lineup as long as Smith has and some, like Barry Sanders and Jim Brown, just didn't want to.
Smith's crowning moment came Oct. 27, when he broke Payton's career rushing record of 16,726 yards during a game against Seattle at Texas Stadium.
He did so in vintage style, taking a small opening and stretching it into an 11-yard gain. He capped that drive by scoring his 150th career rushing touchdown.
Smith took aim at Payton's record before his rookie season, even writing it down as a goal.
Now his sights are set on 20,000. If he gets it, it won't be with a star on his helmet.