The shifting fortunes of life in the National Football League, as personified by 25-year-old Michael Morton:

Two days ago, the running back was placed on waivers by the Washington Redskins, the second team to release him in less than a month (Tampa Bay was the first).

Yesterday, because no other team wanted him, he was reclaimed by the Redskins when defensive end Steve Hamilton was placed on injured reserve with a pinched nerve in his right shoulder.

Coincidence? Hardly. The Redskins had it planned all along, and proved it by immediately making Morton their deep kickoff return man for Monday night's game at Dallas.

"It was a chance on our part," Coach Joe Gibbs said yesterday, a day off for the players.

"We had to count Hamilton on our roster (so they can activate him after four weeks, if necessary), but we liked Michael and wanted him, too. We felt he would go through (waivers) and be available, so we took that chance."

The roster now apparently is set for Dallas, barring injury. But the starting lineup still bears one large question mark. Who's the starting running back: No. 44 or No. 38?

Gibbs said he will tell John Riggins (No. 44) and George Rogers (No. 38) today who will start against the Cowboys. Riggins has been a full-time starter for most of his eight Redskins seasons. But Rogers started all four preseason games, partially because Riggins missed the first two games after a contract holdout.

"We'll tell them Wednesday morning," running backs coach Don Breaux said. "George has been real eager. He's wanted even more work than he's gotten.

"John? I don't know if he's 100 percent, but I know this: John will be ready. One thing we can count on is John falling forward, doing anything to get the extra yard. And he has played extremely well against Dallas."

As a Redskin, in a season of games (16) against the Cowboys, Riggins has rushed for 1,121 yards in 270 carries for a 4.2-yard average and eight touchdowns.

The decision seems to rest on the known versus the still relatively unknown, a choice made last week in the kicking duel between Mark Moseley and Tony Zendejas. Experience won that one.

But this is different. No one loses his job today. In fact, there are those within the Redskins organization who wonder if the coaches may have a hard time juggling their two prize runners, both of whom enjoy carrying the ball often.

Breaux thinks not: "John's attitude is so professional. He likes George being here."

Rogers, who gained quite a bit of experience in sharing time in New Orleans with Earl Campbell, certainly realizes the runners' nine-year age difference favors him in the long run.

Rogers was the Redskins' leading rusher in preseason with 142 yards in 36 carries for a 3.9-yard average and one touchdown.

In another development, the Redskins have decided that rookie free safety Raphel Cherry, not wide receiver Gary Clark, will return punts against Dallas, special teams coach Wayne Sevier said.

With Clark recovering from a sprained right knee, "we're still not sure he can do all the cutting a punt returner needs to do," Sevier said. "Raphel looked real good against Tampa Bay."

Cherry returned four punts for 57 yards, including one return of 23 yards. On his first two returns, he seemed to dive to the ground as he was about to be tackled, but Sevier said that's not bad.

"When we looked at the films, we realized that was all he could do," Sevier said. "He dove to get more yards because there was nowhere else to go."

Before Tampa Bay, the last time Cherry, a college quarterback, returned a punt was as a freshman at the University of Hawaii, Sevier said. He wanted to return punts during college, but his coach wouldn't let him.

Meanwhile, the decision to put Hamilton on injured reserve puts more pressure on defensive tackle/end Tom Beasley, who may not be fully recovered from surgery for a torn capsule in his big right toe, line coach Torgy Torgeson said.

Beasley will back up Darryl Grant at right tackle, and rookie Dean Hamel will back up Dave Butz at left tackle. This leaves Todd Liebenstein as the only replacement for ends Charles Mann and Dexter Manley, which means Beasley could be called on to work at end, too. Owner Jack Kent Cooke lost $350,000 in signing bonuses when Zendejas and cornerback Tory Nixon were traded, but he doesn't sound too upset. "Chalk it up to the fortunes of war," he said. "Although it's a tough financial loss to take, (General Manager) Bobby Beathard has more than made up for it by his other draft picks and player decisions this year" . . . The first official injury report has been issued, and every injured Redskin is listed as probable. This includes quarterback Joe Theismann (knee), Manley (shoulder) and Moseley, who slightly injured his leg on a roughing-the-kicker call as he made a 47-yard field goal against Tampa Bay.