It was a long, exhausting summer, perhaps the worst of his life. Jeff Rutledge spent four days a week in Washington studying an offense "that was like Greek to me" and the other three days in Southern California coaching Little League and maintaining some semblance of family life.

Rutledge smiles now, knowing how odd this sounds, especially after his NFL career has taken yet another unpredictable turn. He was named the NFC's offensive player of the week yesterday, but for a few days last summer, he'd very nearly had enough of pro football.

Hadn't he already done it all, or seemingly all he was ever going to do? He had started nine games in 11 years, but made a nice living and a lot of friends. He had a good reputation, that of being smart and quiet and willing to help any way he could.

Coaches respected him even when they weren't playing him. Teammates respected him. Now, he had a family settled comfortably in Southern California, a newly opened restaurant to run and no guarantee the Redskins even wanted him.

"This was the first time," he remembered yesterday, "that I had to sit down and think, 'Do I want this bad enough? Do I want to be a rookie again?' I knew deep down I still wanted to play. It was a matter of whether or not I was willing to study harder and work harder. I remember going through minicamp and summer school and feeling like a rookie all over again. Thoughts were going through my mind I'd never had before as far as retirement."

He discussed the situation with family and friends, and just when he was at his lowest, the telephone rang early one morning. He answered and recognized the voice of a friend and former coach -- Bill Parcells.

"What's this I'm hearing about what you're thinking?" the New York Giants' head man asked.

"Hey, Bill, I'm just frustrated," Rutledge replied. "I stunk in minicamp and I'm having a hard time learning the system. Things aren't going well. I feel like a rookie all over again."

Parcells cut him off. "You know you can play," he said. "You know you have talent. Work hard. I don't want to hear this."

Other friends told him the same thing, encouraged him not to give up and that Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs wouldn't have called if he didn't want him. Rutledge said something clicked.

"From summer school to training camp, I worked hard on my attitude and came to camp to make the best of it," he said. "If they cut me, they cut me. I'd played 11 years and there wasn't a lot of pressure. Things started to come more naturally."

The Redskins will spend a lot of time this week wondering what they have in the 33-year-old Rutledge. They'll wonder about those 363 passing yards in that remarkable come-from-behind victory Sunday in Detroit. They'll see the films of the game and look again at a throwing arm that was surprisingly strong and judgment that was impeccable.

The cynic in them will say that the Redskins can never, ever, not in a million years be taken to the Super Bowl by Jeff Rutledge. Yet Doug Williams was their designated Jeff Rutledge in 1987 and he was never supposed to start either. Somehow, he ended up MVP of Super Bowl XXII.

They'll remind themselves that sports is full of strange stories, and if Rutledge had retired this summer, he would have quit knowing he never really had a shot at pro football.

He would have quit knowing that the world perhaps had never seen Jeff Rutledge play. He was a wishbone quarterback at Alabama and went there because, growing up in Birmingham, it was the thing to do. His brother and father played there, and Bear Bryant came to his home when he heard that Rutledge was thinking about going to LSU and running Jerry Stovall's pro-style offense.

Rutledge doesn't regret going to Alabama. He won a national championship, was the Crimson Tide's quarterback for most of three seasons and met his wife, Laura.

And yet. . . .

"My dad would argue even today he should've sent me to LSU," Rutledge said.

He was a ninth-round NFL draft pick because, essentially, no one knew him. The Rams played him behind Vince Ferragamo, and when he got a chance to play, he injured a knee. He was traded to the Giants, where coach Ray Perkins immediately told him: "You're here for one reason and that's to back up Scott Brunner."

Rutledge eventually backed up Phil Simms, and after losing what he thought was an open competition in 1984, asked to be traded. For perhaps the only time in his life, he was ready to cause trouble. He wanted out of New York. He wanted to start and he didn't care who knew it.

But that was only for a moment. The Giants told him, no, we're not trading you. Yes, you'll get your chance. He never did, and the last few years he went to every training camp simply trying to hold on. The Giants were looking for a young quarterback to eventually replace Simms and each year Parcells would shrug and say maybe.

Last year at the end of training camp, Parcells told him to cancel his family's flight to New York because the Giants had decided to keep only two quarterbacks -- Simms and Jeff Hostetler.

Then after coming off the bench and throwing three touchdown passes in a quarter against the Kansas City Chiefs, Parcells called him out of a meeting and said: "Tell Laura to get out there. I can't cut you after that."

But it wasn't always smooth. The Giants left Rutledge unprotected in both years of Plan B free agency and, after he didn't get an offer the first year, cut his salary by $175,000. Last spring, he did get an offer -- from the Redskins. When he asked Parcells for a guarantee he'd be back in New York, Parcells said he couldn't give him one.

Rutledge signed with the Redskins and had a tremendous training camp, looking like the best of the team's quarterbacks. But Mark Rypien was the starter. Then Rypien got hurt. Then Stan Humphries threw nine interceptions in a four-game stretch.

Enter Rutledge with the Redskins trailing the Detroit Lions 35-14. He completed 30 of 42 passes for 363 yards and a touchdown and the Redskins won, 41-38, in overtime.

"Whoever said he doesn't have a strong enough arm was wrong," Gibbs said. "Every ball he threw deep was on the money. He hit Gary Clark twice against man-to-man coverage, and those were deep corner routes, the hardest to throw.

"He hit the pump up the middle to Ricky Sanders, another tough one. He threw a {40-yard} pump to Art Monk, and there's not many guys around that could throw that. He gets the ball very quick. He makes great decisions. He's got great timing and a feel for when to get it in there.

"And he has a football awareness that makes him the kind of quarterback that can get things done. You don't do all the things he has done unless you have a lot to you. He's also extremely mentally tough. I don't think you'll intimidate him, which is the number one quality I'd like to have in a quarterback."

Rutledge laughs off any mention of pressure. Pressure? That's playing high school football in Birmingham on a team that won 36 straight games. That's falling to the ground his junior season and seeing a piece of bone sticking out of his left arm. That's going face to face with Bear Bryant in his living room.

He knew he was going to Alabama, but he felt taken for granted. He worked up his courage and he challenged the great Bear.

Would he be jerked from games like his brother had been? Yes, Bryant mumbled. Would be able to throw the ball more? No.

"As long as I'm winning, I'll do what I want to do," Bryant said, adding that if he was really interested in winning games and playing for a national championship, Alabama was his only choice.

Pressure is walking into Bryant's office and telling him you're getting married a week after a Sugar Bowl game against Woody Hayes and Ohio State.

"You had to get his blessing," Rutledge said. "My brother had done the same thing and he said it took him two days to work up the courage. He actually went one day and turned around and came home. I said I wasn't going to do that. I'm going to get married the week after we play Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, and we're fighting for a national championship, ranked No. 4 in the country. We've got a legitimate shot at it.

"I'm a nervous wreck and must have walked down that hallway 10 times, right past his office. Finally, I got the guts to go in. I sat down and said: 'I want to share with you some plans I've made.' He didn't say anything and I started talking and told him.

"That caught his attention and he said: 'Your mind isn't going to be on the ballgame.' I said I won't let it come in the way of that. Then he paused and it seemed like forever. I'm sweating, nervous and waiting to hear what he's going to say. He looks up and says: 'Do you love her?' I said, 'Yes sir, I do.' "

Bryant asked: "Does she love you? Did you talk to her parents? Did you talk to your parents?" Rutledge nodded yes to every question.

" 'All right,' Bryant said, 'but you better have your mind on that ballgame.' We end up beating Ohio State, 35-6, and I was the MVP of the game.

"He was so intimidating, and I'm not sure he meant to be. He's the type guy that if you saw him coming, you'd try to find the nearest door to hide in. He always called me Jack Rutledge.

"There'd be games where he'd ask for players who'd played years earlier, and the assistant coaches would go crazy trying to figure who he meant. If the guy was a center, they'd get all the centers together.

"We'd have a walk after every pregame meal. He'd say: 'I want to have a walk with the quarterbacks.' My brother told me the speech and I knew it verbatim before I ever heard it the first time. It hadn't changed from when my brother was there.

"It was, 'In crucial situations, run your best ball carrier behind your best blocker. Throw when the defense least expects it.' It was the same thing week after week, year after year. We'd take off and be probably 10 yards away and he'd turn around and say: 'Be brave, be brave.' " 'The Way I Was Raised'

Rutledge came to Washington having made a nice career out of working hard and staying ready. One part of Gibbs surely wanted to enter a season with Mark Rypien, Stan Humphries and rookie Cary Conklin.

But what if the Redskins were down by 21 in Detroit? Would that be the time to throw Conklin to the wolves?

"I quit complaining after a while," Rutledge said. "Because of the way I was raised. If you're supposed to play, the Good Lord can work it out. I didn't like it. I didn't like it at all. They tried to get rid of me a lot of years.

"Bill {Parcells} would challenge me in the offseason and I'd come in in great shape and wouldn't let him cut me. I haven't been to one training camp in 12 years that I felt confident at the end of camp I'd be there. I went into every one fighting to keep my job."

And he went into each of the last eight seasons playing behind Simms, who was becoming one of the NFL's most durable quarterbacks. Now, when he surely thought there'd never be another chance, there is one more.

"My wife told me I ought to retire after Sunday's game," he said. "If it works out, great. If it doesn't, that's great too. I'm thankful for the opportunity.

"I don't think people have really seen me play a whole lot to know if I have talent or not. I was labeled a backup pretty early in my career. I knew things could change, that I was still one play away. I'm hoping to make the best of it now whether it's just against Philly or it can continue."