The Washington Redskins are crossing their fingers and hoping starting outside linebacker Greg Jones makes it through the season before he has to undergo surgery for a hernia.

The Redskins know, however, that at any moment Jones could require emergency surgery that would sideline him for about four weeks, and they are scrambling to make contingency plans. The experience is all too familiar to Jones, who had the threat of back surgery hanging over his head all of last season. He underwent surgery in January to have a herniated disk repaired and hopes his luck holds up in his first season as a full-time NFL starter.

"This is the same kind of situation, but that one last year was a lot more serious than this," Jones said. "Hopefully I'll make it through the season without having to have the surgery, and then have the surgery after the season ends. I've been playing, and it hasn't been debilitating yet. I don't think it has affected my play. It's just something you're aware of and something you feel, but it doesn't take away from your strength."

Since late in training camp, Jones has been suffering from a protrusion of a sac of intestinal tissue through the abdominal muscle wall in his groin. Doctors have told him he must undergo surgery at some point, but he has continued playing. If emergency surgery becomes necessary, Redskins officials say, he will have approximately 24 hours to have the operation before risking serious tissue damage.

Elective hernia surgery during the season would sideline Jones for two to four weeks, members of the team's medical staff say. Emergency surgery would keep him from playing for at least four weeks, they say.

Jones said: "It's not going to heal by itself. It comes out, and I'm able to push it back in. The problem will be if it comes out and gets turned, I won't be able to get it back in. Then if I can't get it back in, surgery will have to be performed. During the Dallas game, it was out for a while, but I felt like that was my best game all year."

Jones, 25, says he has consulted specialists and has been told he's not taking any serious risks.

"I talked to the specialist and said, 'What if I get hit down there or what if I get hit while it's out?' " Jones said. "He said not to worry about it."

No one at Redskin Park questioned Jones's toughness and determination after watching him grit his teeth and keep playing last season even with a disk injury that was pinching a nerve and causing weakness in his leg.

"It got pretty bad last year," Jones said. ". . . It's real frustrating. . . . It's not like I'm constantly hurt, because these injuries aren't keeping me from playing. They're just there."

Redskins officials often have been frustrated this season with the play of Jones and the club's other first-year starter at outside linebacker, Shawn Barber. But they say Jones played his best game of the season in Sunday's 38-20 loss at Dallas.

"I just opened up and said, 'This is Dallas,' " Jones said. "Now I'm going to try to play that way every single game. I'm not going to think about too many things. I'm just going to go play."

The Redskins' defense is ranked 30th among the NFL's 31 teams, and many observers have pointed to the play of the linebackers as a reason. Jones smiled when asked whether he, Barber and middle linebacker Derek Smith have been given more than their fair share of the blame, but he said he accepts the criticism.

"I don't think I've been physically overmatched by anyone," he said. "It's just that I've maybe worried about too many things, and that has slowed me down. . . . We have a very good defensive line, a lot of first-rounders. We have Champ [Bailey] and Darrell Green in the secondary. There are a lot of big names around us.

"I take it upon myself. There are a lot of times I could have played better. If the blame comes, then that's the way it goes. I'm not going to sit here and say I don't deserve any, because anybody can play better."

The Redskins suddenly are frighteningly thin at outside linebacker. Malcolm Hamilton and Fred Strickland are on the injured reserve list, and Twan Russell is playing with a sprained knee. The Redskins have been prohibited by the NFL from re-signing Jones's predecessor, Ken Harvey, who retired during training camp.

The club Tuesday signed veteran linebacker James Francis. Francis, who was cut by the Cincinnati Bengals at the end of training camp, must get back into game shape and learn the Redskins' defense. Once that happens, he probably would be Jones's replacement in the starting lineup if Jones must undergo surgery. For now, Russell is Jones's primary backup.

Francis, 31, played in only two playoff games in his nine seasons with the Bengals, both following the 1990 season. He says he saw the Redskins play on television only once this season as he sat at home in Houston--Sunday's loss to the Cowboys. But he's overjoyed, he says, to join a team tied for first place.

"They've got a lot of talent here," Francis said. "It's always tough to play in Dallas. Stats-wise, [the Redskins'] defense is down. But those are just numbers. This team has a great chance to be in the playoffs. I haven't been there in a long time, and I want to get there."

CAPTION: Greg Jones is playing with hernia, which might require emergency surgery at any point during season.