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Emmitt Smith missed two games and half of another. The Dallas Cowboys lost all three, proving why Smith is the most valuable player in the NFL.

The Cowboys running back, selected Monday as MVP in voting by 81 national media members, narrowly beat last year's winner, Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers. Smith, the league's leading rusher for the third straight season, received 26 votes, while Young, the top passer in the NFL, had 21.Smith is the first Cowboys player to win the award.

"It's a great honor because it means you've done what you're supposed to do and done it as well as anyone," said Smith, who has won three consecutive rushing titles. He ran for 1,486 yards this season, with nine touchdowns, and caught 57 passes, with one TD.

Only the third running back since 1980 to be named MVP, Smith held out through training camp and the first two games of the season, which Dallas lost to Washington and Buffalo. The Cowboys (12-4) also fell at Atlanta when Smith bruised a quadricep in his right leg.

"We're a different team with Emmitt, that's obvious," guard Nate Newton said. "He's our big-play guy, the one we rely on."

In his four NFL seasons, Smith has rushed for 5,699 yards and 50 touchdowns. He also has caught 189 passes.