For Ken Houston, his left arm in a cast and his season over, it was a day to sit back and contemplate his future as a Redskin. "If they want me back next year, I'll be back," he said. "I think I still can play in this league."

For Coach Jack Pardee, his team coming off a discouraging defeat made worse by the loss of one of its most valuable players, it was a day to contemplate life without Houston.

"Tony Peters can do the things Kenny can do on the field, so we'll be okay there," Pardee said. "But it's the other things that Kenny does for us that we can't have disrupted."

Houston, the National Football League's premier strong safety who went almost 13 seasons without a major injury, fractured his wrist in the loss to the Giants Sunday. He will be out six to eight weeks. As the Redskins plan a final, three-game stretch drive to the playoffs, his absence will create two headaches for Pardee.

Without Houston, the Redskins' highly flexible secondary, the key part of their defense, will have its versatility limited. Instead of being able to spot Peters at both safety and cornerback, Pardee now must use him full time at strong safety.

The Redskins also could have a leadership void that may prove a major problem the next few weeks.

"Kenny is still going to be an integral part of this team," Pardee said. "He is the acknowledged team leader, not just on defense. We need him and we are going to keep him involved. The other players look to him and he usually responds with his performances."

But Houston cannot play anymore -- "I can do everything I normally do with the players now but get out on the field with them," he said -- and his leadership by example will be sorely missed.

That leadership is a major reason why Houston could be back next season, even if it means as a backup to the talented Peters.

Had he finished this season in good health and played once again in the playoffs, Houston said, he seriously would have considered retirement. But he does not want to end his career on such a sour note, nor is he convinced his skills have slipped, which was one of his concerns before the season began.

So any retirement notices will have to be issued by the Redskins, not Houston. The club will have to determine how the 35-year-old athlete fits into its rebuilding plans, although Houston said yesterday he would "be willing to serve as a substitute if I thought it would help the team."

Other Redskin veterans have been eased out the last two seasons. Pardee said Houston had been having "an outstanding season" and was playing "as well as he ever was, with no dropoff in ability."

"I told Kenny earlier this season not to think about retirement," said Pardee, who had read stories quoting Houston's thoughts on the subject. "When the season is over, we will sit down and talk and go from there.

"Kenny will have to decide whether he wants to continue the physical part of the game, whether he still wants to put in the knocks and take the punishment. His injury was a freakish thing, not a sign of age.

"I really don't see any reason why he won't be back. He's a heck of a player, the kind we want around."

The play of Peters also could be a factor. Acquired from Cleveland in the preseason, Peters is an aggressive safety who excels against the run. He had done so well this year that he has forced Pardee and his staff to find him playing time.

"We have all the confidence in the world about Tony," Pardee said. "He is a fine football player and he'll fill in nicely for Kenny.

"But it kills our depth. We can't afford another major injury in the secondary. And it means people like (rookie) Ray Waddy will have to come through for us. But heck, you just don't ever replace people like Ken Houston."

Waddy again will become the nickel back, a job he had surrendered to Peters. And Don Harris, who was moved from safety to wide receiver two weeks ago, will return to defense.

Pardee said the Redskins are still considering who will take Houston's spot on the roster. Most likely it will be a wide receiver (former Redskins Dennis Law and Chris DeFrance are possibilities), although a running back may be brought in.

"We just want to find someone who will help us win the next few weeks," Pardee said. "Somebody who will give us a good look in practices and contribute."

While the Redskins were considering their next move, Houston, who has played in 183 straight games, was in his Virginia home, adjusting to life without football for the first time since grammar school.

"I'm not really depressed," he said. "Maybe it hasn't hit me yet. I just don't know how I will adjust to the inactivity. I haven't gone through this before.

"I think Tony can do the job, maybe that's why I'm okay. I'll be pulling for the team. You can help just by being around, you can talk, you can give tips, things like that.

"I really haven't thought about retirement. As long as I can be helpful, I'll play. I felt I was having a decent year, as good as I've had. Over the last few weeks, I felt good even physically. My speed is even still there.

"If I thought I was just hanging on, I'd leave. But I don't feel that way."

Besides the loss of Houston, Pardee was concerned yesterday about his team's lackluster performance against the Giants.

He defended his offensive strategy, saying it was not that conservative -- as some players had thought -- but was designed to take what the defense was willing to give up.

He also said he would consider playing linebacker Rich Milot more, but that "Pete Wysocki didn't play that badly. They all played the same, really. It just wasn't the kind of football we need to win.

"This is the same team that beat Dallas," he said. "You don't make wholesale changes. We'll be okay if we regroup, think positive and remember what it takes for us to win."

The loss to the Giants reinforces that Pardee has maintained from the start of the season: The Redskins have little margin for error in any game, will rarely overpower anyone and, most times, must perform close to maximum potential to win. And they cannot afford mistakes like dropped passes or penalties and expect to beat opponents like the Giants.

Pardee acknowledged that both New York and New Orleans have shown the ideal way to beat Washington, unless you have the overwhelming talent of a Pittsburgh.

"You control the ball by running, you have a good punting game and you play good defense," he said. "Both teams were very conservative on offense. Not too many teams, however, can play that way. Most times, they make mistakes."

Benny Malone has a bruised back, but Pardee expects him to play Sunday against Green Bay . . . Mike Bragg's 74-yard punt was the longest of his 12-year pro career . . . With two field goals, Mark Moseley now has 22 for the year, equaling his career high.