The curious legend of Tim Hasselbeck continues.

You can bury him on the depth chart. You can go six months without anybody at Redskins Park so much as speaking his name. You can make him an asterisk to an addendum to an afterthought.

You can bring in a $43 million three-time Pro Bowl quarterback, presumably to be your starter, even though you already have a young quarterback-of-the-future on your roster with a javelin thrower's arm. You can consign Hasselbeck, who is 26 but looks more like 36, to the category of NFL curiosity with his thinning hair, accountant's physique and friendly unassuming manner.

You can even forget that Hasselbeck played almost all of six games for the Redskins last season and did quite well in five of them. He won only once, but his teammates squandered two victories.

Yes, you can sell his arm short, badmouth his size and damn him with the faint praise of "human interest story." He's the runt of the litter in a family where his father is an NFL veteran, his brother, Matt, is the Seahawks' star quarterback and even his mother had five brothers who were quarterbacks. Oh, you can denigrate his chances of an NFL career from dawn to dusk.

But you can't make him go away. You can't make him quit. And you can't convince him he can't play quarterback in the NFL. Because he, not his better-known wife Elizabeth of ABC's "The View" and reality TV fame, is the real "Survivor."

Yes, he's doing it again. Hasselbeck is messing up everybody's well-laid plans. When Joe Gibbs said there would be an "open competition" in preseason for the starting quarterback job, nobody sent Tim the memo telling him he wasn't included.

The casting call was supposedly for Mark Brunell and Patrick Ramsey. But, so far, only Hasselbeck has gotten raves from the only critic who matters: Gibbs.

On Monday night, after Hasselbeck led a preseason win over Denver, Gibbs said, "I've been bragging on him all along." Yesterday, Gibbs added: "I like Tim. He's smart. He's made some good decisions." Of those other fellows, he said, "We had some opportunities and missed them. . . . It was tough for Mark and Patrick. . . . Tim came in and made some plays."

Don't worry. Hasselbeck's head still fits in his helmet. "Coach Gibbs has said things that make me feel pretty good," he said yesterday. "But if I don't keep it up, in four weeks he'll forget he ever said anything about me at all."

When the regular season opens in a month, Hasselbeck may still be playing third string or be injured or even have bombed out of the league entirely. When your primary tools are your head and your heart, job security is nonexistent in the NFL.

But so far, based on performance, not reputation, Hasselbeck is leading in the Redskins' quarterback competition. By a lot.

In open training camp practices, he's been the best performer almost every session. On national TV in the Hall of Fame Game, Brunell completed 4 of 8 passes for 18 yards and managed one first down in three series. In five series, Ramsey went 3 for 8 for 12 yards, fumbled a snap and got only one first down, aside from penalties. Both looked uneasy in the offense.

Hasselbeck played three series. First, he drove the ball out from the 4-yard line so the Redskins had room to punt. Then, he capped a 56-yard touchdown drive with a 33-yard scoring bomb. Finally, with the score 17-17, he drove 66 yards for a game-winning field goal as time expired. Overall, he was 7 for 10 for 118 yards and a quarterback rating of 142.9.

Okay, so the field was cluttered with reserves and rookies. Garbage time in early August doesn't count for much. But Hasselbeck looked like a quarterback playing in a new offense who had already learned it and was pretty comfortable in it. There may be a reason. Dan Henning, Gibbs's former quarterbacks coach, worked with both Hasselbeck brothers during their Boston College careers. Matt used the Gibbs system his whole career and has been preaching the gospel to Tim in phone chats.

The brothers talk about rolling pockets and learning to trust their receivers to make the proper reads of defenses in mid-play. "Sometimes the receiver can break in any of three different directions," said Hasselbeck. "I have a hard time throwing to guys when I can't see them." So does any quarterback. But that's central to Gibbs's offense. In time, Joe Theismann knew, as he dropped back, whether Art Monk would break left, right or hook on a crucial third-down pattern. Then he gunned it, trusting that Monk, not a defender, would be there to catch it.

All the Redskins quarterbacks are still a bit mystified. They didn't even get a playbook from Gibbs, just a blank notebook. The best note taker in meetings wins the job? "I opened the notebook and said, 'Where are the pictures?' " said Hasselbeck.

So, Joe, how high could Hasselbeck, even in theory, move up the chart?

"We're just competing out there," said Gibbs innocently. "They'll all get to play a lot in the next four weeks."

"All" would now seem to include Hasselbeck.

Few would imagine Hasselbeck can keep up this fantasy. After all, he's one of the few quarterbacks ever to have a 0.00 rating for an entire game; in the 27-0 Dallas disaster last year, Bill Parcells exposed Steve Spurrier's offensive theories by blitzing multiple men on almost every play. Hasselbeck was the human guinea pig in that public humiliation.

Still, this is delicious while it lasts. Is Hasselbeck actually moving into the competition, even if only at the edges of it?

"You may not believe this, but I don't think about it. I just can't," said Hasselbeck.

In Hasselbeck's fragile yet hope-filled world, you never know what can happen -- good or bad.

"In this game, you can't relax. I coach myself never to feel like, 'I'm going to be here,' " he said. "One year in Carolina, Jeff Lewis was supposed to be the starter. He had a horrible camp and exhibition season and [by opening day] he was out of the league for good.

"When you get opportunities to play in this league, if you play well, good things will happen. You may not be with that team, but you'll be in the league. Things will work out for you. Last year at this time, I was the fourth guy in Philly, just waiting to get cut, and I ended up starting five games for the Redskins."

All Hasselbeck can do is his best, though few believe it can be enough. Still, Gibbs has a unique history. Who thought Mark Rypien or Doug Williams would ever win a Super Bowl or that Jay Schroeder would start in an NFC title game?

"People tell me [Gibbs] wants a smart quarterback who runs a clean operation and doesn't throw the ball to the other team," said Hasselbeck, who fits that minimalist description.

On Broadway, when you have an open casting call, you never know who might end up playing the lead.