With 1 minute, 11 seconds left to play in the third quarter Monday night, the Cowboys' Emmitt Smith lurched to the turf, thereby prompting The Groan Heard 'Round the Earth.

The mother of all groans, as it were. Or America's Groan, if you buy into that Cowboys-as-national-icon bit.When Emmitt Smith aches, Cowboys worshipers everywhere wince. When he flinches, they flinch.

And when Smith's left hamstring stops him dead in his tracks, as it did last night against the New Orleans Saints, they groan. Even a majority of the partisan audience at the Superdome seemed to groan.

After all, this was Emmitt Smith lying there, all anguished and horizontal. The moment was poignant.

How poignant, alas, remains to be seen. Sort of like a good "General Hospital" episode.

Tune in tomorrow . . .

Except, lest ye forget, the Cowboys don't play tomorrow. Their next game of consequence figures to be Jan. 8, 1995. God rest ye merry hamstrings, and all that.

Before, therefore, the Great Emmitt Smith Hamstring Watch is launched at Valley Ranch this morning, allow me to remind all you budding general practitioners that Smith doesn't miss games. He runs for a living. In five seasons with the Cowboys, the only thing that ever has jimmied Emmitt out of the starting lineup was owner Jerry Jones' stubborn wallet.

During his All-America high school days in Pensacola, Fla., Smith ran for 8,804 yards, scored 106 touchdowns and never missed a game because of injury.

In his All-America career at the University of Florida, Smith was equally trustworthy - rushing for 3,928 yards without missing a Saturday over three seasons.

He has this streak going. Just 1,800 or so more consecutive starting games, and Emmitt catches Cal Ripken Jr.

He says he will play Saturday against the New York Giants? Good heavens, why?

"His attitude is that he thinks he'll be back this week, but obviously we're not even going to consider that," coach Barry Switzer said. "You all saw what happened. It looked like he was shot and fell down."

There are meatier, more lingering questions to be asked of these Cowboys. Like, what were they doing last night, monkeying around with the Saints and allowing Smith to be on the field in the third quarter in the first place?

And, like, who is this confused, out-of-sorts running back stumbling around in the Cowboys backfield, calling himself Blair Thomas?

Thomas' debut with the Cowboys last night: six carries, 7 net yards.

It is no secret the Cowboys need Smith. The two season-opening losses in 1993, while Emmitt and Owner Jones were wrestling over dollars, were enough to forever prove that.

While millions have been lavished on stand-ins for quarterback Troy Aikman, Smith's indestructibility has been taken for granted. The parade of Lincolns - and Edsels - as backups suggests that.

And if anything has been drummed into the Cowboys' psyches over these past five weeks, it's that they had best march into any NFC title-game rematch against San Francisco with all pistons firing. Of all pistons, Emmitt's.

"It's a scary thing when you lose a player like that," Switzer said, "but I don't second-guess that. We've got to go and try to win football games, and if we second-guess, we can forfeit and we won't even have to go to New York."

Switzer knows, in other words, he will be questioned for having Smith on the field in a game that had little riding on it but Saints fans' pulses and some mythical Cowboys playoff barometer. In truth, this was "Monday Night Football," and all that that implies. Maybe, like the Dennis Hopper commercial, Coach Boomer was trying to deliver a subliminal message to the 49ers.

Let the Great Emmitt Hamstring Watch, therefore, begin. He has 19 or so days, not counting this upcoming New York game. He has ice packs. He has cortisone shots. He has diathermy and dial-a-massage.

He has this streak thing going. Groan.