SANTA CLARA, CALIF. -- One thing Ronnie Lott always has loved about the San Francisco 49ers is that nobody's job is safe. To stay, you'd better play. Nobody's exempt, not even Joe Montana. Not even Ronnie Lott.

A morning practice had ended earlier this week and Lott walked into the locker room at the 49ers' lavish headquarters. A few steps ahead of him walked Dave Waymer, a former Pro Bowler himself, signed as a free agent just in case the 31-year-old Lott . . . well, falls off a little too much in this, his 10th season. Lott sees the irony in the situation. "This team has kept winning," he said, "by replacing guys like me."

Problem is, Lott's not ready to go. He still is capable of doing something about it, just as Montana did two seasons ago when challenged by Steve Young. An admittedly poor preseason -- "As much as anything, I was making sure I avoided injuries," Lott says now -- had people wondering whether he would start the season. The answer came with a seven-tackle, two-interception performance against the Saints Monday night. It was vintage stuff. Bodies flying, Saints receivers short-arming receptions. Lott making a general nuisance of himself from his safety position.

Still, Lott is worried about what the Redskins have seen on film this week. Because he decided to avoid any risky preseason preparation in favor of staying healthy, "I'm still a long way from doing the proper things," he said. "In the New Orleans game, I was out of position a lot. Unfortunately, the Redskins are seeing those things on film this week. And an experienced group of receivers like those guys {Art Monk, Ricky Sanders and Gary Clark} can take advantage of it.

"I'd better play a more controlled, disciplined game this week. I've always been on myself more than anyone else. My philosophy has always been you should be your own worst enemy. Look at yourself objectively, maybe pessimistically. . . . Of course, I can't do the things I used to, like playing man-to-man on receivers. And I've always been slow."

Lott also has always been tough. He allowed the tip of one little finger to be severed rather than miss playing time in a critical game. That toughness, as much as his ferocious hitting and timely intercepting, has kept Lott around for 10 seasons. Jamie Williams, a 49ers tight end, was on the receiving end of one of those hits when he played with the Oilers. "I'm a big guy {two inches taller than Lott, 45 pounds heavier} and he put me on rubber-legged street," Williams said. "If I was smaller, I'd still be in traction now."

Williams, like a lot of other offensive players in the league, thinks Montana is not the only 49er who is the very best at his position in the NFL. Lott, if not the best ever, is the best safety of his generation. "Dennis Smith of the Broncos {Lott's college friend and teammate at Southern California} is the closest thing, but he's still a notch below Ronnie as far as being an overwhelming, overbearing force."

As much as Montana is the 49ers' offense, Lott is the team's defense, physically and spiritually. "Joe is more a silent leader," Williams said. "Ronnie is silent most of the time, but when he wakes up it's like a massive storm rising across the plains states in the middle of a sunny day. He won't say much most of the time. He sort of melts into the walls. Then all of a sudden there's a thought or a feeling that's like a thunderstorm; then he's finished. The timing is always great. He's like a soft-spoken Lawrence Taylor."

He's also more a product of the Washington Redskins than anybody who will be lining up opposite him dressed in burgundy and gold Sunday. Before his family moved to California in 1969, when he was 10 years old, Lott lived in Washington. He took great offense at the 49ers' defense being called a "finesse" defense, "because I thought I played defense the way the old Redskins played it, and there was nothing finesse about that.

"I was a fanatic over the Redskins. I followed them religiously," he said. "{Pat} Fischer, {Chris} Hanburger, {Sam} Huff, Brig Owens, Ken Houston, Jerry Smith, Bobby Mitchell, Charley Taylor, Roy Jefferson. I hated the Cowboys and everything. {The Redskins} are the guys I emulated. That's where my early football philosphy came from, from George Allen. I was a kid watching on TV, but you could just feel the mental toughness coming right through the TV."

Lott already sits atop the 49ers' career list in interceptions with 50. Jack Reynolds, Fred Dean, Gary (Big Hands) Johnson, Charlie Young -- they've come and gone. Linebacker Keena Turner has been here longer (by one year), but Lott's stamp is on this defense. Besides Montana, he is the only Hall of Fame lock. Waymer knew that when he signed on as a Plan B free agent from New Orleans.

"I'd rather have Dave Waymer, a guy I've always had a lot of respect for, than not have him and be forced to ask, 'What if?' " Lott said. "Why go into games with your fingers crossed? Why not get the best players available? I'd rather be playing on Jan. 27 {Super Bowl Sunday} than sitting home saying, 'Why the hell didn't we bring in Dave Waymer?' "