Washington Redskins officials said yesterday they intend to sign tailback Stephen Davis, the NFL's leading rusher, before he becomes an unrestricted free agent during the offseason.

"We love Stephen Davis and look forward to him being a lifelong Redskin," team owner Daniel M. Snyder said.

Vinny Cerrato, the Redskins' director of player personnel, said the team plans to stick to its policy of postponing all contract negotiations with players until after the season. But the club wants to resolve Davis's contract situation before he hits the open market, Cerrato said.

"We have every intention of having Stephen Davis be a Redskin for a long time," Cerrato said.

If they're unable to reach a contract agreement with Davis, Redskins officials apparently would consider making him their franchise player. That would give Davis a one-year contract for next season worth approximately $3.7 million. It also would guarantee the Redskins of keeping Davis or receiving two first-round draft choices from any team signing him as a free agent. None of the Redskins has the franchise-player designation.

Cerrato declined to comment on the possibility of the Redskins putting their franchise-player tag on Davis, saying, "I don't want to get into that."

Neither Davis nor his agent was available to comment yesterday.

Coach Norv Turner canceled the team's usual Monday practice and players' meetings in the aftermath of Sunday's 28-3 triumph over the Arizona Cardinals.

Davis, 25, has been one of the NFL's best bargains this season, with a salary of $934,000. He is eligible for unrestricted free agency following the season.

Snyder has said the Redskins will not negotiate contract extensions with players during the season. That policy will continue in Davis's case, Cerrato said yesterday.

"We don't want any distractions for the players during the season," Cerrato said. "That's the way we wanted it. That's the way Stephen wanted it. It's in the best interests of the team."

The regular season ends for the Redskins on Jan. 2. The NFL's free agent signing period is scheduled to begin on March 2. That would give the Redskins two months to sign Davis to a multiyear contract or to decide to make him their franchise player before another NFL team would have a chance to sign him.

Agent Steve Weinberg met with Cerrato in early October and at that time urged the Redskins to sign Davis to a long-term contract extension sooner rather than later. Weinberg told the Redskins that the price would only go up and they would risk losing him by waiting. If Davis didn't have a new contract by December, Weinberg said, he likely would test the market as a free agent before considering subsequent offers from the Redskins.

Weinberg and Davis have expressed their desire for Davis to remain in Washington.

Cerrato said of the previous round of negotiations: "They never even really got started. It was always our intention to wait until after the season. It's an issue we'll address once the season is over. We want to focus on winning games, and we want Stephen to focus on winning games. We don't want to worry about anything else."

Davis had a career-best rushing day Sunday, with 189 yards on 37 carries. He has 1,335 rushing yards this season, putting him 24 yards ahead of Indianapolis Colts rookie Edgerrin James for the league lead and 18 yards shy of the single-season Redskins record set by Terry Allen in 1996. Davis's 17 rushing touchdowns put him eight away from Emmitt Smith's single-season NFL record.

Davis won the Redskins' starting tailback job over Skip Hicks during training camp and entered this season with three-year NFL totals of 815 rushing yards and five rushing touchdowns.