The Redskins' playoff chances died yesterday in a 27-21 loss to the Giants but their future finally showed signs of life.

Out of the rubble of four lost fumbles, six sacks, four wasted timeouts, an interception, a missed field goal and 12 penalties, rookie quarterback Patrick Ramsey arose as a symbol of hope amid the shambles of Steve Spurrier's initial disappointing season.

Ramsey passed for 204 yards in less than a half, after replacing injured Danny Wuerffel in the third quarter. The strong-armed 23-year-old had the Redskins on a drive that might have salvaged a victory, until wide receiver Darnerien McCants lost a fumble at the Giants 30-yard line with 4 minutes 14 seconds to play after catching a 12-yard pass.

This season's hopes ended with that bobble, as ex-Redskin Kato Serwanga punched the ball away. However, Spurrier saw plenty in Ramsey's performance to lift his spirits.

"We're proud of Patrick. . . . It's time to let him play," said Spurrier. After the game, he awarded the starting quarterback job to the Tulane product for as long as he can hold it. Considering Ramsey's talent, that could be years. Considering that he faces the fierce Eagles defense next week in Philly, it could be one week.

Yet another quarterback switch may seem comical in a season in which Spurrier has, beginning with the last exhibition game, flipped from Wuerffel to Shane Matthews to Wuerffel to Ramsey to Matthews to Wuerffel and now back to Ramsey again. But Ramsey's work was so poised and impressive, albeit against a banged-up Giants defense, that it would be foolish to discount his promise.

"I felt like I did some things well," Ramsey said. "There were some things I could have done better.

"We didn't win, so I'm not real fired up about my performance," said Ramsey, who finished 12 for 27 with no interceptions and Redskins scores on three of his first four possessions as he cut a 17-3 deficit to 27-21. "My goal is to win a game as a starter. Actually, I want to win all three [left on the schedule]. Let next year take care of itself."

While Ramsey may judge himself strictly by wins, his teammates have a larger view. With Wuerffel, they know they must compensate for his physical limits. Smart and gutsy as he may be, his passes hang in the air for days and, when hit in the pocket, he sometimes seems 50-50 to fumble. As soon as Ramsey entered, the team's demeanor -- on the sideline and on the field -- changed radically, as though his very presence brought optimism.

"When I look at Patrick, I see a dude that's rifling the ball in there and hanging tough in the pocket," said Wuerffel, whose own 13-for-19 outing for 159 yards, plus two scrambles for 35 yards, would have been productive except for an interception and a lost fumble.

During his stint, Ramsey converted a third-and-13, a fourth-and-nine, a third-and-15 and a second-and-20 -- all with pinpoint-perfect passes for long gains and first downs.

"Those were incredible," said Wuerffel.

"Patrick made some nice passes and we made some nice catches, too," said Spurrier of Derrius Thompson, who caught six balls for 122 yards, and Rod Gardner, who had five for 76 yards, including a 13-yard touchdown from Ramsey.

"Unfortunately, we dropped a couple after we caught 'em. We've done a lousy job of teaching them that you can fumble it after you catch it," said a sardonic Spurrier, whose offense amassed 447 yards, 315 of it passing as he ignored any semblance of customary NFL balance and passed 46 times to just 20 runs.

"Right now, we're not real sharp, not real good," Spurrier said. "But once we have some continuity and we develop some smarts, we'll have a chance around here. . . . Except for the backwards plays and the turnovers, we looked more like we want to look.

"I think we've got some potential. We're just not there yet."

This may be the first time all season that Spurrier has been able to see progress in those defeats he loathes so much. Add a couple of quality interior linemen and a speed receiver to this team and, in a weak division, it might be over .500 at this time next season and in the postseason hunt. Even with the modest receivers at his disposal, Spurrier's ballplayers frequently got open by five to 10 yards.

Ramsey's development -- and keeping him in one piece -- is certainly the Redskins' number one project. He's the key.

"I had an advantage. I got to watch the game unfold, watch the Giants' defense, before I went in," said Ramsey, who has performed strongly twice in relief, but struggled in his two games as a starter.

"The two games I started were against pretty good football teams, and I didn't play well," said Ramsey of playoff-bound Green Bay and New Orleans. "I think it's helped me to start the year on the bench, then get to play some to see what it's like, then watch and learn some more, and now play again.

"I just want to go out and learn as much as I can every game. . . . I can't say that I'm as up-to-speed [on the Spurrier offense] as Danny and Shane. But I'm much further along than I was."

In one game, the Redskins showed everything that has caused them to be 5-8 -- an almost unthinkable mark the day Spurrier was hired to inherit a team that finished the '01 season on an 8-3 run. But it also showed much that provides optimism.

At times, they seem so disorganized as to border on amateurish. Few teams make more mistakes before the ball is snapped. Seven times, the Redskins lined up offside or jumped offside. Four other times, they got discombobulated and were forced to call a timeout to avoid other penalties.

Twice, receivers fumbled after catches in scoring territory. Once, Champ Bailey muffed a fair catch, giving the Giants the ball at the Washington 21. Once, inside the Giants 20, McCants got a senseless 15-yard penalty for taunting; as a result, the Redskins got no points. And once, on third down on an overthrown pass in the end zone, linebacker Antonio Pierce committed an unnecessary pass interference penalty that gave the Giants a first down at the 1, and, ultimately, a touchdown.

All those blunders would normally constitute a month's worth of NFL mistakes. Yet the Redskins seem to make such a cascade of unforced errors in more games than not. For the last 33 years, Redskins fans have usually been exposed to disciplined teams coached by Vince Lombardi, George Allen, Joe Gibbs and even Marty Schottenheimer. So, such slipshod football -- the opposite of the kind that Spurrier's teams played at Florida -- comes as a shock and disappointment.

Now, after 13 games, the questions about these Redskins are clearly framed. Will they become a mentally alert club, like Spurrier's Gators, with a daring wide-open offense and a promising young quarterback as a leader?

Or will they continue to make the tidal wave of simple errors -- from missed extra points to dropped fair catches to seven elementary "procedure" penalties in one day -- that have tripped them every time they took a step forward for this entire season?

For the Redskins, the future, as someone once said, appears to be now. And, ready or not, Patrick Ramsey is at the center of it.

Patrick Ramsey has his good points -- he got 8 of them on TD pass to Rod Gardner, conversion pass to Chris Doering.