Running back eligible to return Nov. 8

MINNEAPOLIS -- Onterrio Smith, a key part of the Minnesota Vikings' 2-1 start, will miss the team's next four games as he
serves a suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy,
the league announced Tuesday.

Smith, who has been especially valuable this season as planned
No. 1 back Michael Bennett recovers from a knee injury, opted to withdraw his appeal. The promoted rusher not only has run for 198 yards but also has a team-high 223 yards receiving.

Smith will forfeit $71,765 of his scheduled base salary of $305,000 for the 2004 season and will not be permitted to practice with or have contact with the Vikings until the suspension is lifted. He will be eligible to play again Nov. 8 at Indianapolis.

The sanctions against Smith, who learned in late August of his pending suspension but delayed the action by appealing it, was certainly anticipated. But the Vikings staff felt that Bennett would be back by now and that his return would soften the blow.

However, Bennett, a former Pro Bowl rusher who missed half the 2003 season while recovering from a foot injury that required surgery, re-injured his right knee in Thursday's practice before the Minnesota bye week. In what was the Vikings' first fully padded practice since the end of training camp, and perhaps the only one slated for in-season, Bennett twisted awkwardly in a pass-blocking drill and tore the lateral meniscus cartilage in his knee.

Bennett underwent surgery Monday to repair the tear, and he could miss four to six weeks -- and perhaps longer if the Vikings adopt a cautionary mode with him.

The combination of Smith's suspension and Bennett's surgery leaves veteran tailback Moe Williams atop the depth chart. But Williams, who started a career-high seven games in 2003, is currently receiving treatment for a strained left calf, also suffered in the team's Thursday practice.

Williams is adamant about being recovered in time for Sunday's matchup at Houston, against a resurgent Texans team that has won consecutive outings for the first time in the expansion club's history. If he is not ready, the starting job likely would fall to rookie Mewelde Moore, a fourth-round draft choice from Tulane.

Moore is a versatile player, one of the NCAA career leaders in all-purpose yardage, but has played primarily on special teams this season.

Only a few months ago, Minnesota head coach Mike Tice was answering questions about how he might be able to keep everyone in his well-stocked tailback stable happy. As Tice pointed out at the time, prophetically so, a team can never have enough good backs.

The fact is, the Vikings were fortunate to keep Smith on the field for as long as they did, particularly given the timing of his most recent drug violation. His appeal was delayed because the NFL could not carve out a date for it earlier in the season, so he and the Vikings essentially got some much-needed borrowed time.

However, with the appeal scheduled for this week, little chance of prevailing and a desire to put the matter behind him so he will be available for the second half of the year, Smith opted to accept the league ruling.

The former University of Oregon star is a talented back whose draft stock plummeted in 2003 because of a variety of off-field problems. Chosen by the Vikings in the fourth round, Smith was regarded as one of the true "steals" in the '03 lottery, and he validated that notion by leading all NFC rookies in rushing yards, with 579.

Information from ESPN.com senior NFL writer Len Pasquarelli and The Associated Press was used in this report.