WASHINGTON — It's been nine years since the Washington Redskins had this kind of suspense entering the final preseason game.
In 2002, Steve Spurrier's first season, the coach waited until the final exhibition was over to declare that Shane Matthews had won the starting quarterback job over Danny Wuerffel.
Neither one had played well. Matthews came out on top despite throwing five interceptions in six quarters during the preseason. It's worth noting that Matthews, Wuerffel and Patrick Ramsey all ended up starting before the 7-9 season was over.
Mike Shanahan is letting the race go down to the wire this year, but at least his charges have proved worthy of the competition. Both John Beck and Rex Grossman have played well. Any slip-up in the preseason finale Thursday night against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could be decisive.
"It's very close," offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said. "They both have done a good job and had good numbers. When we review the tape, it's pretty neck-and-neck."
The Buccaneers and Redskins are taking totally different approaches to the game that, under normal circumstances, is the most meaningless one on a team's NFL schedule. Tampa Bay coach Raheem Morris says his defensive starters will play "absolutely not one snap" against the Redskins. Quarterback Josh Freeman will sit out as well. Other starters will play sparingly, if at all.
The only suspense from the Buccaneers' standpoint concerns the players on the bubble, who get a final chance to earn a spot on the 53-man roster that will face the Detroit Lions in the regular season opener on Sept. 11.
"We're stacking the bottom of our roster in Washington," Morris said. "After we get the bottom of our roster stacked and our team put together and our practice squad filled out, then the coaches will already be ready to deal with Detroit and moving on to what we'll be going to do in Week 1."
Mike Shanahan took that approach last year. The Redskins sat all 22 starters for the final exhibition game and gave them a head start studying the Week 1 opponent.
For 2011, he's done a 180. He feels his starters need the extra work to make up for the lost offseason practices caused by the NFL lockout. He's treating this week the same as last week — as another dress rehearsal for all.
"It's different than usual," Kyle Shanahan said. "It's the fourth preseason game, and we have not been playing football that long. The more playing time (for starters) is where I think it changes a little bit."
Plus, there's that quarterback competition to decide. The entire team is anxious to know the outcome, although it's a story line they're happy to follow. After all, this time last year the team was dealing with something more disconcerting — the various misadventures of Albert Haynesworth.
"We had plenty of drama last year," receiver Anthony Armstrong said, "so trying to figure out who's our quarterback is, is really not too much. But it'll be good to know."