Even the Washington Redskins weren't pretending any more in the aftermath of their Thanksgiving day loss at Dallas. They no longer were talking about crafting a miraculous late-season run to the playoffs. They knew the competitive portion of their season had ended, and they had been reduced to playing for their dignity and looking toward next season.
That's not to say that the final four games will be meaningless. Club officials will have plenty of decisions to make as the team retools its roster in the offseason, and the players know auditions for 2003 begin with their Dec. 8 game against the New York Giants at FexEx Field. Coach Steve Spurrier signaled that Friday by saying he intended to give youngsters some playing time, but he also said he will continue to play his veterans.
"You kind of go back and forth between the situation you're in and looking long-term," quarterback Danny Wuerffel said. "You always want to have a chance to make the playoffs, and it's frustrating when you feel like you let that slip away. But as professionals, you show up and you keep doing your job."
Spurrier said he will stick with Wuerffel as his starting quarterback against the Giants, leaving rookie Patrick Ramsey in a reserve role. That is a decision that is virtually certain to draw intense criticism from those Redskins followers who had been calling for Ramsey, the team's first-round draft choice, to get the starting nod to gain experience for next year.
Spurrier said Friday that Ramsey could receive extensive playing time down the stretch but he was staying with Wuerffel as the starter because he didn't feel Wuerffel played badly in Thursday's 27-20 loss, the Redskins' 10th straight defeat to the Cowboys dating from 1997. Other team officials said Spurrier is considering re-signing Wuerffel, whose contract expires after this season, as a backup, and wants to see what his Heisman Trophy winner at the University of Florida can do with this chance to play.
But Spurrier has acknowledged Ramsey is the long-term solution at quarterback, and other members of the organization are eager to find out whether they will be able to count on Ramsey to be the starter entering training camp next summer. Still, the lesson being taught around the NFL these days is that a young quarterback doesn't necessarily need to play in games to learn. San Diego's Drew Brees, St. Louis's Marc Bulger and the New York Jets' Chad Pennington have succeeded in their first chances to be NFL starters without having played much previously, one season after Tom Brady led the New England Patriots to a Super Bowl title with his first opportunity to start. None of them had played much before being given a starting job, but none was a rookie when the chance arrived.
The one advantage of having a full month of playing-out-the-string games is that Spurrier has time to look at both Wuerffel and Ramsey. Spurrier said on Friday he would do "a little combination" of playing veterans and playing youngsters in the season's final month.
That means playing Ramsey. It means continuing to play young offensive lineman Alex Sulfsted, who has started the past two games at left guard, and increasing the roles of inexperienced wide receivers Darnerien McCants and Justin Skaggs. It could mean giving more looks to young running backs Kenny Watson and Ladell Betts.
On defense, the Redskins have begun to work in rookie Rashad Bauman as their third cornerback behind starters Champ Bailey and Fred Smoot, and linebacker Lemar Marshall played quite a bit Thursday after Jeremiah Trotter suffered a season-ending knee injury and Jessie Armstead went in and out of the lineup with a minor knee injury. Delbert Cowsette could play extensively in place of defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson, who could be lost for the season because of a torn calf muscle, and Ladairis Jackson's playing time could increase at the expense of veteran defensive end Bruce Smith. Rookie Andre Lott played free safety Thursday when David Terrell was suffering from a sore hamstring but was victimized for the Cowboys' go-ahead touchdown pass. Playing youngsters means living with the bad as well as the good in hopes of seeing improvement.
"We have good backups here," said Ifeanyi Ohalete, a second-year pro who replaced Sam Shade as the Redskins' starting strong safety at midseason. "I was a backup not very long ago, so I know guys can come in and do a good job. . . . I've been in situations where you felt like nothing good could come of it. I don't feel like that here. We can still go 9-7. That's what we have to shoot for, because that would be something very positive."
Spurrier called the loss to the Cowboys the Redskins' most disappointing defeat of the season. But he said he would put the discouragement of the loss behind him and try to make the most of what's left of the season. His players say they will take the same approach.
"You just have to soldier on," Armstead said. "You get ready and try to win your next game. It won't be that hard. That's what we do. It's our job.''