PHILADELPHIA -- All week long the question people asked about Jeff Rutledge was, Is he ready for prime time? Sadly, the answer has to be: not quite.

The time and place of his debut as a Redskins starter had all the makings of irony at its best, a confluence of rich symbols. Here was Rutledge, a graybeard, portions of three decades in the league, a 12-year veteran, starting on Veterans Day in Veterans Stadium. Unfortunately, the moment of silence observed was for Rutledge's brief career as a starter.

Last week in Detroit was nirvana for Rutledge: 30 of 42 for 363 and 27 points in 34 minutes off the bench. Not only did the NFL make him its player of the week, the NBA gave him its Sixth Man trophy. Rutledge's wife, Laura, joked that he ought to retire right then, before the Eagles game, because his career "can't get anything but worse." Maybe half-seriously, Rutledge agreed with her.

Monday night, Rutledge began stressfully. He completed only one of his first four passes, then, going for Ricky Sanders on a third and one, had to hurry to avoid a lunging Mike Golic, and wound up giving William Frizzell a lollipop of an interception that went for a touchdown. After a bizarre aborted punt attempt gave the Redskins the ball on the Eagles 12, Rutledge had his highlight: He got them in the end zone, albeit barely, on a dicey eight-yard pass to Don Warren.

In all, Rutledge was five of 15 for the half, failing on all six of his third-down passes. The Redskins can be criticized for leaving Rutledge in harm's way; he was perpetually hurried and regularly knocked down. He must have wondered where Buddy Ryan got all these Mike Tysons. The Eagles, however, treated their own quarterback, Randall Cunningham, worse -- Custer had more protection. The rash of wounded on both sides of the line was rather eerie on Veterans Day.

Rutledge's second half was brutal. He wasn't in there long -- just three series -- but it must have seemed an eternity. Each series was three downs and out, leaving the Redskins zero for 10 in third-down situations. Worst of all was Rutledge's final play, 2:50 left in the third period, where he was a sitting duck for a blindside charge by Wes Hopkins. The fumble was unavoidable, and, after struggling to his knees, Rutledge could only watch in disgust as Clyde Simmons scooped it up and ran 18 yards for a touchdown. The next time the Redskins got the ball, Stan Humphries was the quarterback. The explanation was that Rutledge had a sprained thumb -- he had a large wrap on his hand -- and the change had a merciful stop-the-fight quality. Indeed, after the game, Rutledge's hand and chin were still bloody.

In an awful turn of fortune, Humphries was soon being taken from the field in a flatbed cart, his knee in a splint, a grimace on his face. Humphries was one of many carted off the field. Joe Howard, Gerald Riggs, Walter Stanley and Greg Manusky also went that way. Had the driver charged by the tow, he'd have made a fortune. After Humphries left, Rutledge warmed up, but Joe Gibbs kept him out. "He was ready to give it a shot," Gibbs said. "I don't think he could grip the ball well enough to throw it downfield." Rutledge confirmed this, saying, "I tried, I couldn't put anything on it." So Gibbs sent in former college quarterback -- now kick returner -- Brian Mitchell for the final few minutes. Mitchell's three completions and touchdown sneak will probably convince everyone at Duke's that he ought to start next week.

This was the first time Rutledge had started in four years, and only the 10th time in his 12-year NFL career. In 1982, 1985 and 1989, he didn't take a snap; in three other seasons he threw a total of eight passes. That's eight passes in six years ! Most Americans have seen the Khyber Pass more than Jeff Rutledge. He could have gone on "To Tell The Truth" and stumped Pete Rozelle. Talk about rust. Other players go to the weight room, Rutledge goes to Jiffy Lube. Before signing him as a Plan B free agent, the Redskins didn't send a scout out for a look, they sent an archaeologist.

You wonder how this could happen, a player remain virtually invisible so long and still have a parking space -- who was Rutledge's role model, Claude Rains? It only happens to a precious, lucky few: Steve Carlton's personal catcher, bullpen coaches, 7-foot-6 Sudanese shot blockers, Major Major and reserve quarterbacks. A man named Cliff Stoudt has two Super Bowl rings from the Pittsburgh Steelers for doing nothing more strenuous than standing on the sideline keeping Terry Bradshaw's toupee dry.

Of course there are nights when being a backup is terrifying. Rutledge came off the field with his hand and chin bloodied. Humphries was driven off, his season probably through. Had Mitchell been KO'd, the Redskins would have had to resort to the Original Heavy Jumbo package with Russ Grimm at quarterback.

Long-term success at backup is rare and notable. Don Strock backed up three different Super Bowl quarterbacks for Miami; he stood right beside Don Shula for so long people thought they'd been surgically bonded. Strock probably had a clause in his contract that he couldn't play. Matt Cavanaugh has kept his uniform clean forever. So did Gary Cuozzo. In the absence of sufficient personal stats, a backup's worth is often a function of reflected light. The folks who think Steve Young is one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the league probably assume if you sit next to Joe Montana on the team bus long enough, some of the magic has to rub off; this kind of thinking will eventually lead Eddie DeBartolo to suggest bringing Jennifer Montana to minicamp. Rutledge has understudied two distinguished talents: Vince Ferragamo, a meteor with the Rams, and the unflappable Phil Simms on the Giants. Okay, he was brought there to back up Scott Brunner, but we won't mention that.

But no matter how popular and reliable, the unavoidable judgment about most backups is that there's a valid reason why they don't become starters: They're not good enough. Hotshot backups like Gary Hogeboom, Pat Ryan and Mike Tomczak sparkled coming off the bench, but were unavailing as starters. Given the rudder, they leaked. Rutledge is 2-6-1 as a starter, hardly Canton-bound. And he follows a discouraging line of Redskins dating back to Jay Schroeder who, much to everyone's chagrin, seemed to do better in relief.

The dirty little secret about the recent Redskins offense is that the most fungible part, amazingly, is quarterback. Gibbs went almost seven years without even saying hello to the backup. It took a broken leg to get Theismann out of the game, and Gibbs stayed loyal to Schroeder even when Schroeder was throwing more grounders than John Tudor. Since the Rams game in the middle of 1987 though, when he yanked Schroeder for Doug Williams, Gibbs has tinkered incessantly -- cajoled by hunch and injury: Schroeder had five starts; Williams, 17; Mark Rypien, 23; Humphries, five, and now Rutledge one. It would surprise no one if Rypien was back in the starting lineup next Sunday against New Orleans. What's true about being a Redskins quarterback is that all you have to do is wait your turn. And like Carly Simon sings, "It's coming around again, coming around again."