It was de'ja` vu for Joe Howard last night. A year earlier, he had made a spot for himself on the Washington Redskins roster with an electrifying kickoff return in the team's final preseason game. He did the same against the Los Angeles Rams, but the odds are now against him.

Howard picked a fine time for his 84-yard kickoff return, just as the boos were drifting away following Jerry Gray's 62-yard interception return early in what would become a 37-10 rout for Washington. But three great blocks sprung Howard and he went 84 yards down to the Los Angeles 13. Three plays later, the Redskins were in the end zone and on their way.

"That's the way it's supposed to be," Howard said. "I'm not going to make it easier . . . it helps to make a play. I just wanted to go out, play consistent, play hard, hustle, and whatever happens happens. I have no control over it. I went out and every chance I got, I made something happen."

But the reality is that Washington is only going to keep four wide receivers. Three are Pro Bowlers -- Art Monk, Ricky Sanders and Gary Clark. And Walter Stanley is a high-priced Plan B free agent from Detroit, signed for his kick return abilities. There's no room for Howard in this equation.

The Rams have had a lot of their decisions made for them. A bushel of injuries, including three more tonight to key players, has infected their roster. They were already missing six starters before tonight.

"We were playing without any tackles, wide receivers or cornerbacks," Rams Coach John Robinson said. "I've never seen anything like it. When I was at USC, we lost five centers once. This is certainly in that category."

Tackle Jackie Slater dislocated a toe in the first quarter, and is expected to miss two weeks. And cornerbacks Jerry Gray and Alfred Jackson ran into each other on Mark Rypien's 15-yard touchdown pass to Terry Orr in the second quarter. Gray suffered ligament damage in his left knee and could be lost for the season; Jackson tore his right groin and Robinson said he would probably be out four to six weeks, although Jackson said it was only a strain and he would try to play next week.

"I was really sick about their guys colliding in the end zone and hurting," Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said.

Said Jackson: "I was going for {the ball}. The next thing I know, I was on the table getting X-rays. I had to ask what happened."

Ex-Howard star Derrick Faison, fighting for the final wide receiver spot for the Rams, caught one pass for 24 yards. He could stick for now, but Los Angeles was playing without its starting wideout tandem of Henry Ellard and Flipper Anderson.

Rams quarterback Jim Everett said of Faison: "Sometimes he runs the right route. Sometimes he doesn't. When we get back and he sees Henry Ellard and Flipper Anderson, he'll see how to run routes. I think he has something."

Some Redskins were clearly behind coming in. Whether they made enough impact tonight to turn their status around is hidden in the all-omniscient films Washington's coaches will look at over the weekend.

"I'm sure there will be some clarifications," Gibbs said. "There always is. We tried to let the guys play, a lot of them that we were trying to make decisions on. We'll take a long, hard look at the film."

Howard said he's missed former special teams standout Reggie Branch, and it's affected his returns. In the first three games, he returned three kicks for 54 yards, but fell behind on the depth charts.

"I'm used to having Reggie Branch lead me up through there," Howard said. "This year I've had two or three different guys in front of me. You're not really sure. You don't really have the confidence in asking if they're going to be there for you. But James {Wilder} has been in front of me a couple of times. And he's just like Reggie. He's going to open the holes, and no matter who's in front of him, he's going to clear them out."

The Rams loaded the right side of their kick formation with their bigger players, leaving a mismatch for Washington when it set up a middle return. Howard got three big blocks to spring him.

Will it be enough?

"I try not to worry about that," he said. "I try to leave that up to the coaches. You can go crazy worrying about, 'Well, am I going to be here?' If I'm not here, maybe I'll be somewhere else."

Tight end Ken Whisenhunt faces similar long odds, even after catching a nine-yard touchdown pass for Washington's first score. The Redskins will probably keep four tight ends. Don Warren, Jimmie Johnson and John Brandes are locks. That leaves four men for one spot, and Whisenhunt is outside looking in.

"Everyone goes through the roster and sees how many players you have" at your position, Whisenhunt said. "How many they're going to keep at each position, the combinations of who they're going to keep and why. That's just human nature. But it's out of your hands, so there's nothing you can do about it.

"We played a good game and it's good to come off a last game to feel good about yourself and feel good about the team. If something were to happen and you were to get cut, it'd make the blow a little bit easier. This weekend, I'm just going to enjoy what we've accomplished and enjoy being a part of this team."