Conventional definition suggests the nickname doesn't fit. There isn't a sheriff to be found in this Posse, and certainly no cowboys. Redskins all, these are unarmed yet sure-handed pass catchers. Let the peace keepers handle the felons.

For Posse-mates Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders, only unity matters. Being that they play in the cold East and not the Old West, boots, holsters and spurs won't help them. Their self-given tag describes their close relationship, the meaning of the word as it's often used in rap culture.

You know. Can't touch them.

Can't cover all of them either, which is why the Washington Redskins were so successful at the end of a less-than-fruitful 1989. Making the Posse their offensive focus to offset a shortage of healthy running backs, the Redskins closed with five consecutive victories to finish another nonplayoff season at 10-6.

During that stretch, the Redskins' record-setting wide receivers were frequently lined up as a threesome instead of alternating in various situations, and responded with 89 catches, 1,434 yards and 8 touchdowns. Their late-season free-for-all punctuated a campaign in which each surpassed 1,000 receiving yards to become only the second trio in league history to do so. (Wes Chandler, Charlie Joiner and Kellen Winslow -- two wide receivers and a tight end -- were the first, with San Diego in 1980.)

Question is, what will the Posse do for an encore? Coach Joe Gibbs, who called the plays in San Diego in 1980 before coming to Washington, has said he plans to employ the three wideout formation about 60 percent of the time, putting even more emphasis on a group that already carries the burden of trying to lead the Redskins back to the playoffs after a two-year absence.

"Playing here, you kind of get accustomed to making the playoffs," said Gary Clark, at 5 feet 9 the shortest and sturdiest of the Posse-mates, whose 79 catches in 1989 resulted in team highs in yards (1,229) and touchdowns (nine). "These last two years really have bothered a lot of us. We started talking about it at the end of last season. We don't have to talk about it anymore.

"The last thing you want to think about is not making the playoffs. It's all positive now. We have to be confident we're going to be a factor."

Whereas the Posse's first season using the nickname was marked by three-in-one interviews and a three-way omission from the NFC's Pro Bowl squad, things have changed; their faces now appear on T-shirts and posters. While Monk (86 catches and 1,186 yards in 1989) has been a star for some time, Clark and Sanders have become visible as well, which likely will make all of them even more of a target for opposing defenses.

But that is what drives them. They push for each other. "Share the wealth," they say.

"We're just like brothers," said Sanders, whose 80 catches and 1,138 yards last year followed his '88 totals of 73 and 1,148. "We're good friends and we don't argue."

Clark said: "When people see one, they want to know where the other two are. We've kind of lost our individuality. . . . We have to look at it as a Posse, that's our identity. We're bunched together. Fortunately for us, we do as well as some individuals."

After last year's Pro Bowl snub, Monk said, "I don't think anybody is better" than the Monk-Clark-Sanders trio, and added: "I guess winning makes all the difference in getting to the Pro Bowl. If we were winning ballgames, maybe that might have" captapulted them.

"Posse" used to be the name of a formation in the Washington playbook that called for three wideouts. The play, however, has evolved into a standard configuration, the staple of an offense once focused almost exclusively on the ground game. Even with accomplished runners Kelvin Bryant, Earnest Byner, Gerald Riggs and James Wilder in tow, the Redskins acknowledge that their devastating passing game is what scores points.

Clark, 28, and Sanders, who turns 28 on Thursday, provide experienced youth, with Clark running medium-range routes and Sanders serving as the deep threat. Combined with possession specialist Monk, who at 32 remains one of the NFL's best and its third all-time leading receiver with 662 catches, the trio allows Gibbs to stretch wideouts from sideline to sideline, opening the middle for his capable group of backfield performers.

"Fortunately, we're gifted at both," said quarterback Mark Rypien, who, as the NFC's third-leading passer in 1989 behind San Francisco's Joe Montana and Los Angeles' Jim Everett, probably benefits from the balance between running and throwing the ball more than anybody on the team.

"We can run the football, and we feel we have to. {But} we also, if the situation arises when you have to throw it, can throw it. That's our bread and butter, and that's where we make a lot of big plays."

Said Gibbs: "There's always pressure, but they're used to that." Getting the ball to everyone "happens naturally. The thing I admire most about these guys is that at the end of the game, they all want the ball."

While crowded, the Posse may have room for one more. A healthy Bryant, Clark said, would be a welcome addition to the elite club, even though the 1,000-yard receiving standard is one that Bryant has never approached since coming to the NFL from the Philadelphia Stars of the U.S. Football League in 1986. Bryant, along with flashy wide receiver Walter Stanley, nonetheless has been asking to be recognized as an honorary member.

"I have control over who gets in," Clark said. "I thought of the name, I have control. But if you get 1,000 {yards} a season, there's not much I can say.

"Kelvin Bryant might be the exception. He's such a great athlete in the backfield, he takes so much pressure off of us. Of course, he cuts down our catches a lot too."

Whether Bryant infringes on the Posse's totals remains to be seen. But Gibbs has said he'd like to see slightly better ball distribution than he did at the end of last season.

"You don't even think of that when you're playing," Rypien said of spreading the ball around. "Your reads dictate where you go with the ball, and I think that's what we look for. . . . We don't look for any certain player. It's not a must that we get Gary five or six balls this game or Earnest four or five balls this game."

Perhaps more of a concern for Gibbs is the Redskins' difficult December schedule, during which four of their five games will be played at cold-weather venues. That could make a pass-oriented offense sputter, as Rypien and Gibbs know. After hosting Miami and Chicago, the Redskins travel to New England, then earn a week's respite indoors at Indianapolis before returning to RFK Stadium for the regular season finale against Buffalo.

Regardless, it's difficult to find the Posse-mates worrying about anything. They're having too good a time playing together, just being a unit.

"You play this game. . . . You want to get out there and be in the public's eye," Sanders said. "It's just fun to be around here.

"I know when our days are through playing, we'll probably be walking down the street and somebody will say, 'Hey, Posse,' and we'll all turn around.

"We'll always be the Posse."