I

t was 5:07 p.m. Sunday when a stone-faced John Beck trudged through the South Field Tunnel toward the players parking lot outside FedEx Field. He wore a brown wool blazer, jeans, brown leather shoes and a baseball cap as he wheeled a small black carry-on suitcase up the cement ramp.

"John, we still love you," a group of fans yelled from behind one barricade outside the parking lot fence. "Hang in there. Don't listen to them."

To the right, just 20 feet away and very much within earshot, were some of Beck's detractors, chanting, "We want Rex! We want Rex!" — more than an hour after Beck had lost his third straight game as a starting quarterback this season and led the inept Redskins' offense to just three points against the 49ers until the final minutes of another eyesore.

He signed autographs and took pictures with the holdovers. Then, hearing a request from behind the barricade to his left, Beck walked 20 feet, where suddenly "We want Rex!" morphed into "We want Beck!" He signed their memorabilia, too, and posed for pictures, even with the yahoo who wanted to know what his 40-yard dash time was.

Unsmiling, in disbelief, he looked less like a journeyman NFL quarterback and former Ravens backup than like a humanitarian worker amid the carnage of the war-ravaged people he had sworn to help.

John Beck didn't look as if he'd lost in sports; he looked as if he'd lost in life.

"Hey buddy, I thought you did a lot of things well and you really hung in there," a keep-your-dauber-up Chris Cooley said as Beck walked up to join a circle of supporters. The tight end, on injured reserve the rest of the season, took one last swig of a Pabst Blue Ribbon, crushed the beer can with his right foot, and added, "It'll come. You watch. It'll come."

Beck's wife, Barbara, who had put their youngest of three sons to sleep in the back of the car, then came up and embraced her husband tightly, holding him for a while, understanding as only a woman who had lived in three NFL cities in three years could.

The plan was to crush Beck on Monday. All his liabilities came to bear Sunday; all the reasons he isn't franchise-QB material were on display. And while we're at it, why in the world did Mike Shanahan ever think otherwise? Players have said privately that the NFL game was too fast for Beck, that he was dead meat against any good zone defense.

And Sunday was further evidence that smarts and competence can only compensate so much for an inability to throw accurately downfield 20 and 30 yards. So after the Redskins have managed just 31 points in the past three games, this was the day to finally conclude Beck was never going to be a bona fide starting NFL quarterback.

When you heard Shanahan asked who was starting Sunday in the postgame news conference and he said, "I'm going to stick with John," you wanted to ask if he realized he was talking about Beck, not Elway. You want to get into it with the coach in front of everyone, ask him whether he was just tone-deaf when all of football essentially said Beck can't play with their lack of interest in him.

But then you see this eating up Beck inside. You walk to his car with him, past the fickle chants and toward the person who's always there for him. And you can't do it.

Because you have no idea the sting of being told you can't earn a living at your dream job anymore because you're not good enough. Imagine you paint, and you want to be a great Impressionist. But an art critic says you're awful, tells you to walk dogs or work at Kinko's. Or you want to be a novelist — except a literary critic says your syntax, alliteration and character development are so bad you should go back to school and get an engineering degree.

What right does anyone but you have to end your professional dream? So you end up telling John Beck to stay healthy and hang in there like some sap of a fan.

Because you know this might be it for him — the one moment in his NFL career he can scale his pay grade. When no one else believed in him, he found a former Super Bowl-winning coach who does, the same guy who worked with Elway and Steve Young and briefly Joe Montana. He can show the general managers who long ago compartmentalized him as a career backup — the smart system guy with limited physical skills but good attention to detail — that they were wrong, that he could start, lead and win.

It might be evident to everyone else who saw Sunday's game that Beck's not the guy, but you can't tell him that, because he's gotten closer to the dream than almost anyone will — and the letdown when you're this close has got to be infinitely more heart-breaking than a high school coach saying, "You know, I think cross country is a better sport for you."

As Beck drives off in the dark with family, going on 6 p.m. Sunday, you hope he prepares well for Miami and plays well against the first organization that never saw him the way he sees himself. If Shanahan is really convinced that all Beck needs is more playing time, and Beck believes he's just a couple of missed reads away from multiple trips to the end zone, then you let them get on their warhorses and ride as hard and fast as they want toward those windmills.

If they're going to get crushed, it will be by their own delusions, not by you, not today.

You're not going to be the one to tell Beck he isn't good enough. As bad as he has been at times, John Beck may never get to be the guy again.

So you let him be — for at least another week.