CARLISLE, PA., AUG. 3 -- Among the many young, eager faces trying to impress their way onto the Redskins' roster during the dog days of training camp is one that's not so young, but every bit as eager.

"Actually, I'm a nervous wreck," said Jeff Rutledge, who is trying to beat out rookie Cary Conklin for the Redskins' third and last quarterback spot. "I'm fighting for my life."

Rutledge is 33 and admits, "I don't have many years left."

But he does have experience, something the Redskins need, considering that second-string quarterback Stan Humphries has thrown only 10 passes as a pro. Conklin, of course, has thrown none.

It adds up to one of the most fascinating personnel decisions, one of the classic football quandaries. Do you keep the flashy rookie with the super arm, or the battle-wise veteran backup?

When asked about the decision, Coach Joe Gibbs furrows his brow, takes off his hat and rubs his head. "I just don't know what we're going to do," he said.

Conklin probably came in as the favorite, but Rutledge's tenacity is making the decision tougher. Rutledge has had three straight excellent scrimmages, capped by a five-for-five, two-touchdown, 62-yard show against the Pittsburgh Steelers here Wednesday.

"Every time he gets a chance, good things happen," said Gibbs. "He's a gamer. He might not have the picture-perfect throw, but the two times we put him in against Pittsburgh were by far our best series. Some guys can just move a team."

But sometimes those same guys never get a chance to prove it. Rutledge is an 11-year NFL veteran of the Rams and Giants, but in three of those years -- 1982, 1985 and last year -- he never threw a pass. In 1984 he threw one. In 1986, three. In 1980, four.

The one year that he began as a starter -- 1983 -- he injured a knee in the fifth game and didn't play again that year. In 1984 the Giants' Phil Simms beat him out and Rutledge was never No. 1 again. It's frustrating, he admits, but Rutledge said he is used to it and accepts it. It's a living.

"I realized a long time ago that I would always be a backup. That I was always one snap away from being a starter. But once you realize that, it's all right, and you just prepare yourself for it. It was in 1984 when I realized it, when {the Giants} said that the quarterback position was wide open. I felt I had won the job, but they gave it to Phil. That's when I knew."

Rutledge was the Rams' ninth-round draft pick out of Alabama, where both his father and brother played, and where he was an all-Southeastern Conference quarterback after leading Bear Bryant's Crimson Tide to the 1978 national championship.

But that's where Jeff Rutledge the star sank, and Jeff Rutledge the lifetime backup was born.

After three years as No. 2, the Rams traded Rutledge to the Giants in 1982, but he didn't take a snap that year. By the end of 1989, the Giants felt they had gotten all they could, so they released him. The Redskins signed him as a free agent on March 30.

"The decision {to sign with the Redskins} wasn't a hard one to make," he said. "They showed some interest and I jumped at it. In fact, they were the only ones that showed interest."

Is Rutledge approaching this as a last shot? "When you get into your 12th year, you don't have too many shots left."

What's making Gibbs's decision tougher is Conklin's potential. Conklin, the team's fourth-round draft pick, threw for 2,569 yards and 16 touchdowns in his senior season at Washington.

In the scrimmage against the Steelers Wednesday, Conklin wasn't quite as sharp as Rutledge, completing seven of 14 passes for 56 yards. But as Gibbs pointed out, "Cary went against {the Steelers'} best. When the pressure came at him, he showed some guts."

Conklin's ability makes even Rutledge jealous. "I wish I had the kind of arm he has," he said. "He has a great future, but I'm almost to the end."

Rutledge said he's not a pessimist, but he also admits that sometimes he worries about life without football. "Those thoughts are in my mind," he said. "But if it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out."

Rutledge's family lives in Mission Viejo, Calif., where Rutledge recently opened a restaurant. "It had a great first month," he said. "So I've got options if I don't make it. I've had a great career."

Although he's always gone to training camp fighting for playing time -- sometimes even for a starting spot -- it's been a long time since he has had to battle just to make the team.

"I feel like a rookie," he said. "Like I have to prove I can still get it done. It's the uncertainty of it. I try to tell myself to relax, that it's fun. But I'm still a nervous wreck."

Rutledge probably will get 10 to 15 snaps in Saturday's scrimmage at Buffalo. "I'll be a nervous wreck then too," he said.