It is by choice, not by necessity, that the Washington Redskins will start Stephen Davis at tailback when they open the 1999 season Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys at Redskins Stadium.

They could have entered the season with Terry Allen as their featured runner for a fifth straight year. They could have been preparing to unveil Heisman Trophy winner Ricky Williams. Or they could have turned to Skip Hicks, who set a team rookie record with eight rushing touchdowns last season.

But the Redskins released Allen as part of their offseason make over. They stuck to their plan of getting cornerback Champ Bailey on draft day, passing on an opportunity to select Williams. And Hicks will begin Sunday's game watching Davis from the sideline, having been beaten out for the starting job in training camp.

Davis, 25, has 815 rushing yards in his three NFL seasons. He never has had a 100-yard rushing game as a pro, or more than 567 rushing yards in a season. His longest run in a regular season game is 39 yards. He perhaps is best known to the team's followers as the other combatant in a 1997 training camp fight with wide receiver Michael Westbrook.

Still, the Redskins say they believe their running game is in good hands, and Davis enters the season with far-from-modest individual goals.

"Over 16 games, we're going to be a good running team," Coach Norv Turner said.

Said Davis: "Everyone wants to get to 1,000 yards. Personally, I'd like to get 1,200 to 1,500 yards and do everything I can to help this team."

Davis acknowledges that he's not a known commodity, but said the questions being raised about him and the team's running game don't bother him because they're justified.

"I haven't started for a whole season," he said. "I haven't rushed for 1,000 yards or 1,200 yards or 1,500 yards."

He is not the breakaway threat that Hicks is, but he and the Redskins say they're confident he'll get the job done. He lowers his head and grinds out the tough yards between the tackles, just as Allen did before injuries kept him off the field too often for the Redskins. The Redskins need one of their running backs to be effective in diverting the attention of opposing defenses from new quarterback Brad Johnson, and Davis said he thinks he is ready to be the team's main runner.

"I'm excited," he said. "I'm happy for the opportunity I have. Hopefully, we'll be able to do the same things we did in the preseason. . . . I feel no pressure at all. The only pressure I feel is from myself, wanting to succeed. Everything will fall into place. The quarterback is there. The offensive line is there. The receivers are there. Now it's up to me to be the best back I can be."

The Redskins didn't expect Williams to be available when they picked fifth on draft day because they knew the team ahead of them, the Indianapolis Colts, was set to select a running back after trading Marshall Faulk. But the Colts stunned just about everyone in the league by taking Edgerrin James instead of Williams, and the Redskins had a quick decision to make.

They didn't waver from their predraft plan. They had decided Bailey was the player they wanted, and they had worked out a deal with the New Orleans Saints to get all of the Saints' picks in this year's draft--plus a first-rounder next year--in return for the right to draft Williams. So the Saints got Williams and the Redskins, after making another trade with the Chicago Bears, got Bailey with the seventh pick in the draft.

Redskins officials say now that they never looked at it as Bailey vs. Williams. They looked at it as a choice between landing Bailey and a third first-round draft pick next year and playing Davis and Hicks vs. Williams. And all of that, team officials say, tipped the scales in favor of passing on Williams.

Davis said he never paid much attention to the draft-day maneuverings.

"I know what I can do," Davis said. "I've just tried to handle what I can handle and not worry about the rest. I can't control what the team does or what the coaches think or what people say. All I can control is how I play, and I'm confident about that. I think I'm ready."

Hicks was the favorite to win the starting tailback job when training camp began, but team officials grew increasingly disenchanted with him. Some thought he was playing as if he had won the job, and most didn't like his propensity to try to turn every run into a long gainer rather than following his blockers and taking what was there. They liked Davis's steadiness, and he cemented his starting job by averaging five yards per carry during the Redskins' four preseason games.

"I've sensed a real seriousness to him, a real maturity," Turner said.

Davis has had his chances before, but always on a short-term basis while filling in for Allen. He has had two NFL games with at least 20 carries, both in 1997. He had a 22-carry, 94-yard, two-touchdown performance against the Cowboys, and produced 92 yards on 20 carries against the Arizona Cardinals. He made 11 starts at fullback last year after Larry Bowie suffered a season-ending leg injury, then started at tailback in the season finale at Dallas after Hicks was hurt and ran for 70 yards on 17 carries. Davis had only 17 carries and 39 rushing yards last season prior to that game.

"You can't judge a running back until he gets into that 20- to 25-carries-a-game range," Turner said. "Every time we've had that with Stephen, he's gotten his 85 or 90 yards. It hasn't happened very often. Now he'll get his chance on a more regular basis."

CAPTION: Redskins' Stephen Davis (48) is aiming for the lofty goal of 1,200 to 1,500 yards this season after rushing for a total of 815 yards in three seasons.