Cornerback Fred Smoot spent Tuesday, his day off, hanging around Redskins Park to get his sore shoulder treated by the medical staff. On his way out Smoot stopped by the office of Gregg Williams, assistant head coach-defense, for a brief chat, reassuring him that the Redskins' faint playoff hopes and daunting schedule will not deter the effort he brings each Sunday.

"I told him I was really excited about the chance to prove myself," Smoot said. "In this last script we play the best teams in the NFL right now. Come on, if we beat a couple of these teams, man, we will get their respect and hey, I'm not counting us out. I'm always looking at that little crack of light anywhere we can get it from. We've still got a lot of a good teams to play, and as a defensive unit we've still got a lot to prove."

Washington's rough road begins Sunday in Philadelphia, with the Eagles one of only three teams with a single defeat (8-1). The following week the Redskins travel to Pittsburgh to face another one-loss team (8-1); the Steelers have won seven straight games and handed Philadelphia and New England their only losses. The New York Giants travel to Washington after that -- the Redskins have lost six of their last seven games against NFC East opponents -- and the Eagles come to FedEx Field on Dec. 12.

By then the Redskins could be staring at a season even bleaker than last year's 5-11 campaign, which resulted in coach Steve Spurrier resigning. The team, which has a 3-6 record after nine games this year, has failed to improve from one season to the next since Daniel Snyder purchased the franchise in 1999. Of course, this stretch of games would also provide an opportunity to salvage the season and, for a change, bring some momentum into next year.

"We have some real tough assignments coming up," Coach Joe Gibbs said. "Certainly our team is going to be tested, but to me what's important to us is to try to get victories and wins, and I think that's the best way for us to get the best feel for ourselves and our players. Obviously, the one thing you don't want to go through is the agony of losing and having such a tough time, but then again, it's a real test for us. What are we made of? Who can stand up and help get us out of this? How do we play against Philadelphia? It's a big deal for us, so we're going to give it our best shot."

The coaches have been adamant about focusing on each game and not making decisions based on the future, but clearly they are thinking beyond this season.

The staff, together for only nine games, is determining which players are in the franchise's long-term plans, and the move to replace quarterback Mark Brunell, 34, with Patrick Ramsey, 25, could have ramifications beyond the final seven games of this season.

"It's a great way to evaluate who you're going to count on the next week, the following week, the next year, the year after that," said Joe Bugel, assistant head coach-offense. "When you go through adversity you find out a lot about each other, yourselves, the players, the coaches, everybody. . . . When you go through adversity, that's when I think you find out who can, and who cannot. That's the bottom line."

Washington finished last season with three straight losses and lost three of its final five games in 2002. The Redskins lost four of their final five games in 2000. The club has not won consecutive games since the first two contests of the 2003 season and is desperate to take something positive into next season, with the odds of reaching the playoffs steep and the chances of finishing with a .500 record only marginally better.

"That's what you have to fight for," wide receiver Rod Gardner said. "If we go out there and win this next game, then that's a big boost for us, because nobody expects us to win. Everybody's got us losing by like 20 points, so if we can come out and figure out a way to win this game, then it's a big boost going into the next week. I think gradually that builds up the opportunity to get yourself going into next season. This is a gut check, and right now it's not looking good, so a lot of people can fall to the wayside, or everybody can step up and make something out of it."