Along with reviewing their game-day strategy and execution, the Washington Redskins are examining the role muscle cramps played in Sunday's 41-35 overtime loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

Five Redskins left the game with cramps at some point, including three of four starting defensive backs late in the game. Dallas forced overtime by scoring 21 unanswered fourth-quarter points, then sealed the win with a 76-yard touchdown pass to Raghib Ismail against a Redskins defense that lacked both starting safeties, Sam Shade and Leomont Evans, and cornerback Champ Bailey.

"Unfortunately in this game, going into overtime, those guys weren't on the field when they needed to be," Redskins trainer Bubba Tyer said yesterday. "I don't know that it affected the outcome of the game, but it certainly hampered our chances. If you're going into overtime and Troy Aikman is throwing the ball, you'd like to have your best players on the field."

Earlier in the game, starting wide receivers Michael Westbrook and Albert Connell struggled with cramps.

Meanwhile, none of the Cowboys suffered debilitating cramps in the 83 percent humidity and late-summer heat, with temperatures in the mid-80s.

The primary causes of muscle cramps, according to Tyer and other athletic trainers, are dehydration and fatigue. "It could be from low electrolytes [trace minerals such as magnesium, sodium and potassium]," Tyer said. "Being dehydrated can be cumulative. You can work hard during the week and not be fully recovered. Or you can be sick, throwing up during the night, and get dehydrated."

Westbrook and Connell cramped because they didn't drink enough fluids before and during the game, in which both had career performances, Tyer said. He planned to talk to the defensive backs today, but suspects dehydration also was to blame.

Westbrook, who caught five passes for 159 yards, had cramps in his upper thighs in the second quarter, but they worked themselves out as he drank more fluids.

Connell had such severe cramps in his upper torso and legs that he required three liters of intravenous fluids afterward. "Albert, for whatever reason, wasn't drinking during the game, and it caught up to him," Tyer said.

Bailey had cramps in his thighs and lower legs. Evans was seized by cramps in his calves when he batted down one of Aikman's fourth-quarter passes. And Shade apparently has had cramps in the past -- particularly in season openers.

"A lot of it has to do with exertion," Tyer said. "It's their first full game they've played. Plus it was hot. Plus the defense ran a lot. Fatigue brings on more dehydration. The result is, leg cramps are one of the first things you get."

The Cowboys apparently are more accustomed to heat and humidity because they hold training camp in sweltering Wichita Falls, Tex., where temperatures routinely topped 100 degrees this summer. "I thought that was a big factor in the game," Dallas Coach Chan Gailey said after Sunday's victory. "Our guys looked stronger and felt stronger. We know how to handle hot games. We're around it a lot."

The Redskins' defense was on the field much longer, too: 11 minutes 15 seconds in the fourth quarter.

Other factors tend to exacerbate cramping, according to Ronnie Barnes, president of the Professional Football Athletic Trainers Society. Players with little body fat (like defensive backs and receivers) tend to be afflicted more than players with more body fat (linemen, for example).

Cramping and dehydration have also been associated with the use of creatine, a dietary supplement many athletes take because they believe it boosts energy during workouts. While creatine's use is not restricted by the NFL, the Redskins don't promote it, as some teams do, because its long-term effects aren't known.

Creatine is found in meats and fish. People with normal diets may have 1 or 2 grams of creatine in their bodies, while athletes often ingest 20 grams a day. Anecdotal evidence suggests it may contribute to kidney or liver complications.

Tyer did a survey last year of Redskins players, which included a question about creatine use. He declined to say what percentage indicated they use it. It's unclear whether anyone who developed cramps Sunday uses it, either.

"We've had players who have used it and don't cramp; we've had players who have stopped using it for that reason," Redskins strength coach Dan Riley said. "We don't endorse or encourage our players to use any product other than a multiple vitamin unless there's a known deficiency or it's prescribed by a registered dietician."

According to both Tyer and Riley, the rash of cramps wasn't caused by a lack of conditioning.

"These guys are ready to play physically," Tyer said. "For whatever reason, some of these guys ended up being dehydrated."

It can be difficult to get athletes to drink enough fluids because the body is a poor gauge. In short, people need to drink more than the body tells them to. "That's a hard thing for some people to understand," Tyer said. "They think, `If I'm not thirsty, how can I be dehydrated?' "

The Redskins' locker room is stocked with Gatorade. Liquids are pushed throughout the week of practice, during the pre-game meal, at the team snack, on the sideline during games and during substitutions.

That represents a sea of change from 30 years ago. Former Redskins coach George Allen didn't allow water breaks during training-camp practice in his early years with the team. He thought it wasted time. So Tyer used to fill helmets with ice in the Carlisle, Pa., field house and carry them out to players to surreptitiously take sips.

Once, a Redskins player with a dislocated shoulder had to watch practice from the sideline with a giant ice bag latched to him. According to Tyer, linebacker Chris Hanburger jerked the ice bag off him, busted it open and drank the water. "He said, `I need it worse than you need it,' " Tyer said.

Allen's attitude changed after 11 players were taken to the hospital with dehydration after one practice.

"What can we do better?" Tyer asked. "Stress to them the point to keep drinking even though they don't think they're thirsty. Keep pushing the fluids in. Don't drink a lot of alcohol or things that dehydrate you. This week it'll get a little bit cooler, and then a little bit cooler the week after that. It's an issue the first week in the NFL. After that, it's usually not."

Redskins Note: The Redskins have reached an injury settlement with offensive lineman Joe Patton, believed to be in the $400,000 range. Patton was cut during the preseason after allowing a sack of quarterback Brad Johnson. Patton had undergone arthroscopic surgery on his knee during the offseason. Doctors had advised him to rest for two months, but he resumed practice one month later in an effort to retain his starting job at left tackle, according to his agent, Alan Herman. Patton has not signed elsewhere, but is talking with Seattle and Detroit.