Game after game, season after season, Norv Turner defends his players, protects their backs, covers up their cascade of mental mistakes and predicts that, someday very soon, they'll shape up and be "a heck of a team."

When are the Redskins going to return the favor? By their play rather than their cheap words, when are they going to defend Turner's tattered professional reputation?

When are the Redskins going to cover Turner's back, or will they just snicker behind it after he's fired? When are they going to be "a heck of a team" by NFL standards, rather than a bunch that's so undisciplined, lax and scatterbrained that they'd be an embarrassment to a top high school coach?

After Sunday's collapse to Dallas, which recapitulated every blunder of the past five years, Turner said, "I have no doubts the players are going to respond from this and that this team is going to have a heck of a year."

The next day, the Redskins were reported to have "participated in a light practice." Did they have ice cream and cookies afterward, too? Vince Lombardi would have had them crawling under live ammo.

Monday's other salient tidbit was that Turner did not fire anybody. Redskins released or waived: zero. Norv certainly had choices. Plenty of tough-guy NFL types would have said, "If these bums are going to take me down, some of them are going to go with me."

George Allen would have cut three guys, one each from Column A (four clowns who jumped offside), Column B (five crampers who didn't drink their Gatorade) and Column C (all others: 12th man on field, onside-kick-defenders team, safeties who bite on play fakes and anybody named Turk).

Instead, Turner praised his character guys and their hard work as well as their unbelievable commitment to pay a heck of a price.

Just for argument's sake, if the Redskins had no character, didn't work hard and were not committed, how might that manifest itself? Would they stay on their side of the line of scrimmage? Would they remember to drink fluids on a sweltering day? Would they be able to restrain themselves from sending a 12th defender onto the field in the last two minutes with Dallas at midfield? Would they be able to snap the ball, catch it and spot it with the game at stake?

Perhaps it's time for bad character, sloth and indifference. Because Plan A ain't workin'.

Redskins fans and critics fall into an easy trap: Just toast Norv. There's a saying in poker that if you've been at the table for 20 minutes and don't know who the pigeon is, then it's you. Norv has been at the table for six years. He's 4-16 in games decided by three points or fewer. Unless you are related to him by blood, you have to conclude that the verdict on pigeonhood is in.

However, the Redskins problem goes deeper. Turner's not incompetent. He can design an offense. He can evaluate talent. He can assemble a cast good enough to run off 32 straight points against a Dallas team that went 8-0 in the NFC East last season. No, it's the team -- the players themselves -- who are getting off light in this town.

Moments before the Cowboys recovered an onside kick, coaches told the Redskins, "Watch out for an onside kick." Yet the Cowboys recovered, almost unopposed, because both Redskins at the point of attack backpedaled themselves out of the play before realizing, "Oh, it's an onside kick!"

What would you give for a tape recording of the Dallas offensive huddle during the Cowboys' game-tying, 90-yard, fourth-quarter drive?

Troy Aikman to Mark Stepnoski: See if you can draw 'em offside with that old schoolyard roll-the-ball-before-you-snap-it trick. Nobody's dumb enough to fall for that. But what do we have to lose?

The Redskins fell for it four times! Has Darrell Green lost the power of speech? What's going on up there, big guys? Stay onside.

My favorite, however, is the sight of the team's top draft pick, Champ (The Cramp) Bailey, and safety Sam (Stay In The) Shade on the sideline due to cramps brought on by dehydration with the game on the line. Apparently, you can lead a Redskin to water but you can't make him drink.

Sometimes it seems the Redskins actually dream up new and ever more tormenting ways to lose close games. As they lined up for that potential game-winner with three seconds left, how would they blow it? A bad snap? Yes! A botched hold? That, too!

But even if the snap and spot had been perfect, wouldn't Brett Conway, like so many nightmare Turner place kickers before him, have boinked his kick flush into the goal post? Even if he had made it, wouldn't some cursed heir to Ron Middleton have been called for holding and nullified the victory?

For several years, the Redskins have specialized in being overmatched by simple aspects of the game that every high school team in The Washington Post Top 20 has mastered. When it comes to alertness, poise, discipline -- or simply being able to stay onside, count the men on the field, remember an assignment, not throw your helmet in anger or refrain from head-butting a wall in celebration -- the Redskins are not the equal of a top schoolboy team.

That points straight at the supposed character of the players and the leadership abilities of the coaching staff. Where is their pride? This is a town familiar with the mental preparation and crisp execution of Lombardi, Allen and Joe Gibbs teams. What did we do to deserve this three-ring circus?

Hard as it is to believe, not a day goes by -- not even in the wake of a debacle such as the Dallas defeat -- without some fresh example of the I-don't-have-a-clue obtuseness of many Redskins.

On Sunday, 313-pound defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson was credited with the same number of tackles and sacks as my wife. His response? Get a load of this:

"Going in and out of the game, that kind of messed my groove up. I got to get into my mindset, be a little selfish and do things my way. But to be going out and in messes up my rhythm," said Wilkinson.

The last thing on earth the Redskins need to do is get a little selfish, withdraw into their own isolated mindset or do things their own way.

This team has the ability -- as it showed for three quarters against Dallas -- to be a credible NFL team. Unfortunately, it also has shown, for six years, that it is the antithesis of what is meant in sports by the term "winning team." Turner may not be the solution. But he is also not the biggest problem. If the Redskins want to identify the enemy, they have only to look in the mirror.