Dan Snyder, Abe Pollin and Ted Leonsis began their seasons with one thing in common. The owners all thought for sure they had improved their Redskins, Wizards and Capitals and would surely make the playoffs.

After all, they'd brought new stars to town, such as Jeremiah Trotter, Jessie Armstead, Jerry Stackhouse and Robert Lang. They had signed first-round draft picks Patrick Ramsey, Jared Jeffries and Juan Dixon. Most dramatically, the Redskins even signed Steve Spurrier to the richest coaching contract in NFL history. And the Caps had a new coach, too, in young Bruce Cassidy.

"Steve Spurrier will bring a supercharged, exciting and dynamic brand of football to our fans," Snyder proclaimed.

"The talent that has been accumulated since the end of last season is endless," Wizards General Manager Wes Unseld said.

Leonsis pointed proudly to three new stalwart players he had added, plus three old standout Caps returning from injuries.

Now these owners have something else in common, something they'd never have guessed. All three teams have losing records and, if the playoffs started right now, none would make the postseason.

Seldom has a city seen three talented teams fall flat at once. All see it. No one denies it. But everybody is trying to reverse it.

"It's absolutely amazing. It's sickening. Our fans deserve more," defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson (now out for the season with a calf injury) said after the Redskins blew a 10-point lead at Dallas on Thanksgiving day, all but killing any playoff hopes.

The Wizards' Michael Jordan was so miffed at his young, inconsistent teammates that he vowed that if they didn't improve, he would just have to play more himself. They didn't, so now he has.

Cassidy was so exasperated, he snapped, "You have to ask when they are going to get mad. I'm looking for some pride."

What's an owner to do? Read the riot act? Ride out the storm and hope for better days? Or smile and swear the glass is half full?

To each his own, it appears. The three owners, in separate interviews this week, displayed the whole range of responses -- from annoyance to disappointment to defiant optimism.

"I'm heartbroken," said Leonsis of the 11-13-2 Caps. "I'm hopeful they wake up. But if they don't . . . changes will be made."

"Obviously, we're disappointed," Snyder said of the 5-7 Redskins, "but we are not that far from being successful."

"I'm wonderfully optimistic. We will make the playoffs," Pollin said of the 8-10 Wizards. "Wanna make a bet that we don't?"

Leonsis's reaction was by far the most dramatic, and the most different from his usual genial demeanor.

"It's when we lose in this unorganized, dispassionate way that it upsets me greatly. . . . It is our lack of work ethic that is concerning me," said the Caps' owner. "This should be a shot across the bow. I want to see them play with effort, passion and commitment. And take joy in this great game that they are paid a lot to play."

For Leonsis, who has bent over backward to give his players what they've asked for, including a new coach, this was a true eruption. Told about his frustration with them before their Tuesday night game, the Caps went out and played by far their best game of the season, beating the Penguins, 4-1. Who says reading the riot act never works? But will Leonsis's well-deserved lecture stick?

The Redskins' failure has been the most stunning. For the third year, they talked bravely. In 2000, they had a $100 million payroll. In 2001, proven winner Marty Schottenheimer was a lock for the playoffs, right? This year, Snyder added two Pro Bowl linebackers, Spurrier and well-regarded defensive coach Marvin Lewis. Spurrier even crowed that he'd give Snyder a game ball after beating Dallas.

"You don't have to worry about any game balls on this side. They kicked our butts," said Spurrier on Thanksgiving. Right now, the "supercharged" Redskins have trouble making an extra point.

There's soul-searching at Redskins Park these days and maybe some predictable scapegoating, too. The kicker's been fired. (Oh, that's original.) And Spurrier is singing, "I gotta be me." He now claims that he'll go down "pitchin' and catchin' " it since "Dan Snyder didn't hire me to run the ball 45 times a game."

"Our needs are glaring," Snyder said this week, referring to the need for a couple of interior linemen and a quality speed receiver. "During this offseason, we're going to fix those needs.

"If two or three games go our way, we're right in the hunt, which is where we'll be in the future."

The wild card is Ramsey, the rookie quarterback with all the tools and none of the experience. "We're sticking by that [number one] pick," Snyder said. "If he works out as well as at quarterback as [number one] Chris Samuels did as a tackle, then watch out."

Privately, Redskins executives believe they need to evaluate some of their personnel more critically. "Expectations were set too high," said one Redskins decision-maker. "We've had to adjust to reality."

Nothing's harder.

The Wizards' Pollin thinks that, given time, adjusting to the reality of his team's talent level will be a great pleasure.

"It's early. We have eight new players. It's going to take some time. But I am not discouraged," said Pollin whose Wizards, after six straight losses, have shown signs of life in two straight wins. "We have the best player in the world, plus Jerry Stackhouse. Our younger players are coming along fine. Look at Juan Dixon [who's currently injured]. I was sort of the guy who insisted on drafting him. What a great kid with a big heart.

"Remember, with young players, one night they're up, one night they're down. Look at Kobe Bryant, Jermaine O'Neal, Tracy McGrady. It took a while for all of them. With [Wizards' 2001 number one overall pick] Kwame Brown, one night he's great, the next night you can't find him. That's just how it is with young players."

Though Pollin is the most "hands-off" of owners, he's also an NBA fan with a lifetime of opinions. "I think [Coach] Doug [Collins] will settle down to an eight-or-nine player rotation pretty soon," Pollin said. "Once everybody knows their role, where their help is on defense and gets familiar with the combinations on offense, you'll see improvement. Maybe that time has come."

In recent years, Washington's pro teams have sometimes seemed to lapse into a leisurely mode -- call it Complacency City. Coaches get canned, but players aren't always held accountable.

Perhaps Leonsis's outburst, Jordan's annoyance and Spurrier's set-jaw decision to do things his own way are a good sign. The core fuel of success in sports is an unalloyed passion to compete. Look at Gary Williams's national champion Terrapins.

So far, the Redskins, Capitals and Wizards have only shown brief bursts the kind of "effort, commitment and joy" that Leonsis demanded. It's not too much to ask. In fact, for the prices the public pays, it should be the minimum.