These are the best of times for the Washington Redskins -- when the games are being played on paper, and not on the field. Lately the assembling of the team has been more promising than the finished product on Sundays. So we hitch our wagon to a burst of free agent signings and the upcoming draft, and moon about what might be. (Oh, my, did I write "wagon"? Must have been a Freudian slip.)

And look how much there is already: The Redskins have added two offensive guards, a scorchingly fast running back and two defensive linemen -- every one penciled in as a starter. They have reached agreements with John Hall, a good kicker, and Rob Johnson, to back up Patrick Ramsey. They intend to sign one or two speedy wide receivers, a safety and a kick returner who will actually go forward after he catches the ball. What's not to like? Well, the signing of Rob Johnson will provoke arguments all over town, since his career so far has been characterized as overpayment and underachievement. But overall it's a bonanza.

The truth is the Redskins look a lot better now than they looked in December. But this has been the pattern recently: The team looks best all wrapped up like a plush toy in a big box. The problem has come when you put in the batteries and hit the switch, and nothing much happened. This time, it feels like the goods are real. This time The Danny didn't just go after the fanciest names on the board for the cache factor. Seriously, how much cache is there in offensive guards?

"I'm learning, okay?" Dan Snyder said the other day. "The first time I tried to swing for the fences and do it real quickly. Now we're going to build it."

Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith and Mark Carrier, for example, weren't brought to Washington to build a team; they were brought here to crown it. The difference in this group so far -- besides their anonymity -- is their ages. "They're young, and they'll get better," Snyder said. "They're still on the up." Running back Trung Canidate (Trung? How can you pass up "Manchurian"?) is 25; defensive tackles Regan Upshaw and Brandon Noble are 27 and 28; starters on the offensive line now range from 25 to 28.

The offensive line is critical. "You can't execute an offense designed around the passing game if your quarterback is ducking for his life," Snyder said. "We got the guards because we recognize Steve can't impact his stuff without guards. I hate the [bleeps] who said we didn't have a plan. We had a plan. We're executing it now."

Snyder is at the center, delighting in this whirl of activity around him, and his part in it. "You know, Dave Fiore was one of the strongest guys on the 49ers," Snyder said excitedly. "He bench-pressed 225 pounds 46 times. Most people do 22-24. And Randy Thomas, who we signed from the Jets -- six teams wanted him. He was leaving here for Tampa Bay. He had a road show set up. We stopped the road show."

This is much more fun for Snyder than two years ago, when Marty Schottenheimer was running things. Schottenheimer didn't seem to want to sign any new players; it seemed he only wanted to sign his family members. And last year Spurrier was content to bring in a bunch of nondescript Gators. Two years in a row Snyder stayed in the background shuffling his feet. This year is heaven. Big action. Lotta noise.

"We're very focused. We're doing what we said we'd do," Snyder said. "We're improving the team. I guarantee you're going to be very happy with what you see on the field."

Hmmmm. He sounded like George Zimmer of Men's Wearhouse.

Snyder didn't buy the team to run it like a chicken franchise. His role model is Jerry Jones, Mr. Hands-on. Snyder has done everything to be like Jones except get a face-lift. Like Jones, Snyder will be in the middle of everything his team does. Which explains the flurry this week. (And the flurry you might see around the draft, if the Redskins maneuver to get Charles Rogers of Michigan State or Andre Johnson of Miami, the two quickest receivers on the board.) The Redskins are racing with the moon to get younger and faster. You don't hire Steve Spurrier to see what he can do with plow horses.

The Redskins need a boost this year. Last year at this time there was fevered anticipation of what Spurrier would bring; at the worst, we thought, even if he lost games, he would lose, 45-42. If nothing else, his offense would be electric. But we saw Spurrier struggle; he tried on quarterbacks like he was trying on suits, and never found one that really fit. His experiment at resurrecting his old Florida Gators didn't work. Nothing on offense worked. How infuriating it must have been to read the paper Mondays and find the same columnist lecturing him that the only way to win in the NFL was to run the ball. Run the ball? If Spurrier wanted to run the ball he could have taken a job at Kansas State.

This year the Redskins will be faster, to better accommodate Spurrier's design. And they'll have to be better, too. Because if they aren't, folks will begin howling for Spurrier's head.

Excuse me, Tony, but you're not bailing out on your boy, Spurrier, are you?

Absolutely not. I thought he was a great hire. But the Redskins aren't the Wizards or the Caps, where you can lose for years before anybody notices. The Redskins' coach is always on the griddle. What you did at your last job, you did at your last job. And Spurrier didn't exactly join the Mountain West Conference. Andy Reid just won NFL coach of the year; Jim Fassel has coached in the Super Bowl; Bill Parcells has won two of them. The Redskins needed to get this much better not to fall behind.