The Redskins and Wizards have been so bad for so long, we've come to believe that today's promise is just tomorrow's cruel tease. But if we can shed our cynicism for a few minutes, we might find two teams that have improved enough to be worthy of some reaction other than scoffing.

Daniel M. Snyder's demanding impatience with the Redskins and Mitch Richmond's re-signing with the Wizards are critical elements of offseason overhauls that should prevent both teams from continuing down their non-competitive paths.

Even though the Redskins have lacked talent at a number of positions the past few years, an even bigger problem was a shortage of people -- top to bottom -- who feared the consequences of losing. A tolerance for losing took root very quickly. Snyder could see it, even before he bought the team. And now that he has paid $800 million for the franchise, tolerance is over.

I don't care what Snyder does with the stadium or what he calls it, or what kind of entertainment and marketing strategies he institutes. You spend the kind of money he's spending, you get to do exactly what you want. What's important is that Snyder has promised a housecleaning if the team doesn't make the playoffs this season. "Imminent" changes is the way he put it in a conversation two days ago with Washington Post editors and reporters.

When I listen to stories told by guys who played for Don Shula, Bill Parcells, Dan Reeves or a young Mike Ditka, there's one constant theme: They made it so uncomfortable for you to lose, you would do anything not to. Those veteran players and former players, some of whom are in the Hall of Fame, say they have not detected that fear of losing with the Redskins in recent years. Fear doesn't always work. In some cases, like the Yankees of the 1980s, it becomes rather comic. The bark is rendered ineffective. But I think Snyder's win-or-get-out approach has gotten everybody's attention.

That's not to say that the Redskins have "all the pieces in place," to borrow the unwise phrase uttered a couple of preseasons ago by Norv Turner's buddy Dave Wannstedt. The Redskins could use a top-flight left tackle, a bruising running back, a proven wide receiver in his prime, and a third-down, sure-bet pass rusher. (Chris Doleman, the recently retired defensive end with Hall of Fame credentials, would be a perfect fit if Snyder can sweet-talk Doleman and his agent, David Falk, into signing for what the Redskins have available.) There'll be plenty of Geritol jokes if the Redskins sign Doleman and Irving Fryar, but both are consummate professionals and they upgrade the team significantly at positions of need.

Those two aren't going to make this a Super Bowl-caliber roster, not by a long shot. But the Redskins can be competitive, particularly in the incredibly weak NFC East. The Redskins can make the playoffs. I'm not going to say that with such certainty about the Wizards. But what Wes Unseld has done over the last couple of weeks has substantially improved the team. On NBA draft day, when Unseld was booed vigorously in MCI Center, it looked like the beginning of another long, dark period for professional basketball in Washington. Unseld had become as unpopular as GM as he was popular as a player, which would have been unthinkable once upon a time.

We pop Unseld around when the Wizards goof, which is often. We should give him kudos this week because he has substantially improved the team with little in the way of trade bait and no room under the salary cap. Getting a slimmed down Isaac Austin not only puts a big, able body at center, but it helps free up operating room for the expensive back court of Rod Strickland and Mitch Richmond. Signing power forward Aaron Williams also helps. And there is still money available (the $2 million exception) to bring in a Dickie Simpkins or Grant Long to start at power forward. With Juwan Howard at the other forward spot and Tracy Murray, Richard Hamilton, Chris Whitney (and perhaps Williams) coming off the bench, it's a competitive and seemingly balanced team. It doesn't figure to scare the Knicks or Spurs, but there's enough skill on hand so that the Wizards shouldn't have to roll over against Philly or Atlanta or Milwaukee or Detroit.

It would have been nice if Calbert Cheaney hadn't turned down the trade to Miami, because Clarence Witherspoon (another good move by Unseld) would have been a big-time addition. Six years after he showed up here, I'm still trying to figure out what to make of Cheaney. He's smart, skilled, diligent, coachable. Yet, something's obviously missing. I'd say it's passion. Word is he was going to get the same amount of money in Miami -- where he would have been playing for a contender -- that he got for signing with Boston, which might not be as good as the Wizards. Was Cheaney shying away from a real challenge, as we thought so many nights in Washington? Or did playing for Bob Knight in college scare him off from another egomaniacal dictator, Pat Riley in Miami? If so, wait until Cheaney gets a load of Rick Pitino.

Like the Redskins, the Wizards also need a firm hand. That appears to be right up Coach Gar Heard's alley. So far in his dealings with players, assistants and even Unseld, Heard has proven to be a no-nonsense, old-school coach who is ready to exert himself.

The Redskins don't play a real game for three weeks, and the Wizards for more than two months. But creative changes, smart acquisitions and the insistence that things have to get better now have already given the Redskins and Wizards what they didn't have much of when they finished their most recent seasons: hope.