You sit in RFK Stadium, or some other concrete playpen, in the dead of winter. Half-frozen, you watch as bloated men outfitted in leather-coated armor and helmets with face bars beat the stuffing out of each other over a ball easily purchased at K mart. You wonder: Can there be intelligent life down there?

There can.

You have chuckled at dumb-jock stories -- at Thomas Henderson of the Dallas Cowboys, who said of future Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw: "He couldn't spell cat if you spotted him the c and the a."

At Bill Peterson, a moderately successful college and professional football coach, who once silenced his team for the pre-game prayer and then began: "Now I lay me down to sleep . . ."

At the university president who said of his coach: "I like him because he's smart enough to understand football, but not smart enough to leave it."

And so on.

"Not too many brain surgeons in this business," admits the president and general manager of the New Orleans Saints, Jim Finks.

Still, if they wanted to, the human beings inside those strange suits could suddenly rise an instant before the pummelling resumed; they could look toward the stands, at the brain surgeons and others feeling smugly superior and yell: "If we're so damn stupid, how come you're paying good money to watch us?"

Like the great running back Jim Brown, intelligence in football is not easily tackled. Most teams have discovered that the traditional IQ tests are almost irrelevant. Otherwise, somebody would have tried to sprinkle Einstein's cereal with steroids and pointed him toward middle linebacker.

Certain men seem immediately and completely comfortable with the complexities of football. Their kindred souls are the "street smart" wizards of business who dominate boardrooms in spite of little formal training.

Because football has so many men clustered so close together, one dummy going the wrong way can doom the brightest plans. But many coaches build flexibility into their strategy, allowing a particularly tough and instinctive player the freedom to free-lance within certain limits.

In many ways, the evolution of game smarts in pro football can be seen in the team the Redskins will face in the National Football League playoffs this Sunday. The Chicago Bears, one of the original teams formed in the United States, introduced what now is regarded as a basic offensive pattern, the T formation, to pro football in the 1940s. Yet despite the team's trail-blazing tactics on the football field, the Bears almost try to hide their obvious smarts behind a tough-guy veneer, billing themselves Monsters of the Midway.

In 1984, for instance, before the Bears played the 49ers for the National Football Conference championship, stories circulated that San Francisco head coach Bill Walsh and Chicago defensive aide Buddy Ryan were exceptionally bright.

Sniffed Bear head coach Mike Ditka: "Maybe we ought to hang out a sign: 'Geniuses at work.' " 'Red Right X'

All year 'round, football strategists are studying old games in search of new plays. Yet for all the hours, days, weeks, months and years that the Redskins' Joe Gibbs and other thinkers have spent in monastic devotion to strategy, there are only two things a team can do on offense -- it can pass the ball or run with it.

Lordy, how complicated that can get, even for finely tuned minds. An NFL team's playbook is the thinking man's football bible, and it reads more like a Pentagon handbook for nuclear arms negotiations. A former center for Notre Dame and the Kansas City Chiefs, Mike Oriard, wrote of his first bout with an NFL playbook:

"I looked at a typical play, one called 'Red right X, 52 full pop G-O inside' and tried to figure out what all the codes meant. Red was the formation, right the direction to which the strong side of the formation lined up.

"X was an indication to one of the wide receivers to split out, 52 meant the fifty-series run through the two-hole (around right end); full signaled a switch in assignments between the fullback and halfback; pop told a back to block the defensive end while the tight end hooked the outside linebacker.

"G-O indicated both guards pulled; inside dictated that the wide receiver would block the inside man forcing the play from the secondary, while the lead puller blocked the outside man."

All that for a sweep right.

"My eyeballs," Oriard admitted, "were rolling after looking at only one play."

Eyeballs of non-believers roll in amazement that coaches spend so much time doodling plays and then watching them. Coaches' wives consider film projectors and tape machines among civilization's most terrible inventions.

But everything is in the play and any list of football geniuses would have venerable Sid Gillman near the top. When he coached the San Diego Chargers, then in the American Football League, he called defensive assistant Bum Phillips to watch a particularly meaningful piece of film. He ran it countless times, while Phillips yawned.

"Bum," his boss finally said, "this is better than making love."

To which Phillips replied: "Either I don't know how to watch film, or you don't know how to make love."

Tests of Potential

The brand of pro football that today mesmerizes the country is not very old. As an entertainment phenomenon, it is a bit younger than "High Noon" and a tad older than the Beatles. Only in the late '50s and early '60s was there enough money to allow nearly everybody involved to consider football more than part-time work.

Still, players and coaches now very likely are no brighter than the last generation, even though their game seems so much more sophisticated. Probably, there is little in all of football strategy, college and professional, that the great University of Chicago coach Amos Alonzo Stagg hadn't at least considered by the turn of the century.

But a team is only as bright as its players. Few NFL teams allow so much as a peek into how they judge the college prospects who compose the lifeblood of their franchises. The Redskins are more open than most. For the past few years, they have relied heavily on tests devised by two eye specialists, Dr. Harry Wachs and Dr. Ron Berger.

At George Washington University, Wachs and Berger have been using tests that measure sight and insight. Their tests seek to estimate raw intelligence

instead of the IQ variety that predicts school success.

The tests, Wachs said, "tap into the human potential anywhere in the world" and have been given to tribes in Africa, to Eskimos and to children with learning problems.

In looking for new talent, Redskin scouts carry such items as a beanbag and goggles that distort lines of sight; they use small blocks and plastic shapes about the size of tiddlywinks. In all, the test is a series of games that lasts about 90 minutes.

The tests measure, among other football necessities: giving and following instructions, the ability to think under pressure, hand-eye coordination, speed of seeing, speed of thinking, adaptability to physical change, the willingness to take risks.

"Who can think on their feet in the global picture of a game" is how Wachs describes it. The scouts administer the tests; Wachs and Berger evaluate them.

So far, the Redskins player who best validates the tests is strong safety Alvin Walton. His classroom performance at the University of Kansas had been terrible, but he aced the Redskins' measurement of football potential.

Unfortunately, Wachs said, the Redskins drafted a receiver, 1986 second-rounder Walter Murray, before giving him tests that showed a glaring lack of depth perception. Murray later was traded to the Indianapolis Colts.

At this point, though, no body of scientific evidence exists to pinpoint the smartest players. But among the football intelligentsia, there is a general consensus on brain-jocks that will surprise even fairly devoted fans: offensive linemen -- the anonymous blockers on the line who are guards, tackles and centers -- have more on the ball than anybody else on the team.

Consider: Our most prominent football president, Gerald Ford, was a center at the University of Michigan. (Supreme Court Justice Byron White, however, played halfback at Colorado; so much for theories.)

Nearly all the presidents of the NFL Players Association have been offensive

linemen. The man who uttered the wisest statement ever about pro football was a guard for the Dallas Cowboys, Blaine Nye, who declared: "It's not whether you win or lose that counts, but who gets the blame."

Nye has advanced degrees in physics and business and teaches at Stanford. From the mid-'60s to the mid-'70s, he played for probably the most cerebral team in the NFL. The Cowboy coach, Tom Landry, devised a defense basic to the NFL for 15 or so years, then came up with offensive counters to beat it.

The man who hired Landry, Tex Schramm, also is responsible for other intelligent moves in football management. It was Schramm, as general manager of the Los Angeles Rams in the late '40s, who figured it would be a good idea to hire fulltime scouts to evaluate prospective draftees independently rather than rely so heavily on press clippings.

As the first -- and only -- chief executive officer of the Cowboys, Schramm used computers to help get a more accurate line on talent. The Cowboys also bumped traditional NFL thinking by: drafting athletes from other sports (Olympian sprinter Bob Hayes and basketball collegian Cornell Green), drafting from obscure colleges (Rayfield Wright from Ft. Valley State in Georgia) and constructing offensive lines from collegians who had majored in defense.

Nye and defensive linemen Pat Toomay and Larry Cole were three of the most ambitious Cowboys in many ways -- so ambitious they formed the Zero Club, which was dedicated to total apathy. Anyone with enough gumption to join was automatically disqualified.

All three participated in that famous Redskin-Cowboy game on Thanksgiving Day in 1974, when the Cowboys' lightly regarded rookie quarterback Clint Longley relieved injured Roger Staubach and threw the winning touchdown pass in the final seconds.

"A triumph of the uncluttered mind," Nye called it.

That sort of wit and insight can be found most often in the mostly anonymous blockers. Check it out over a period of time in the papers. The most spectacular plays come from everybody else; the most telling lines come from the offensive linemen.

As one NFL personnel director said several years ago, college players with the highest grades on intelligence tests tended to be, in order: offensive tackles, centers, quarterbacks and guards.

"They're the real thinkers of the team," the Rams' John Robinson said in Paul Zimmerman's "The New Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football." He added: "The receivers say: 'Throw me the ball.' The runners say: 'Hand me the ball.' But offensive linemen stop and say: 'Why are we doing that?' "

If, as alleged, NFL smarts usually go from the inside out on offense, it's the other way around on defense. The defensive position requiring the most intelligence is free safety, because he usually signals adjustments as the offensive formation changes before the snap.

With the Redskins, the signals for each play start not with the quarterback but with the tackles. Between when the play is called in the huddle and when the quarterback barks the count, the linemen have shouted instructions to one another on how the defense will be blocked.

Sometimes, a meaningful signal among Redskin offensive linemen might be the name of fellow lineman Joe Jacoby's wife.

Defensive linemen have their codes, too. Once in training camp during the Watergate trial of attorney general John Mitchell in the mid-'70s, defensive tackle Diron Talbert suddenly yelled: "Watergate . . . Watergate . . . Watergate."

"What's that mean?" I asked later.

The politically savvy Talbert said: "Nothing. It's just a dummy defense."

But football intelligence isn't limited to one or two players. It helps everybody involved if each player knows the assignments of his teammates. That usually is the difference, according to the Redskins' assistant general manager, Bobby Mitchell, between a fellow gaining five yards and running all the way to the Hall of Fame. The great runners know where their blocks will be, beyond the line of scrimmage, and how to use them.

Once in a while, a player's intelligence can be used against him. One of the ways is called a "sucker play." In this type of play, the offensive team gambles that a "smart" defensive lineman will follow the pulling blocker in front him on what appears to be another sweep.

Instead of pitching the ball to the halfback, however, the quarterback slips it to the fullback, who charges, straight ahead, into a hole the thinking man's defensive player has just created. The trick is never tried against a dumb player, because he wouldn't realize how to beat the sweep in the first place and almost surely would remain planted in the hole.

But let's say our smart defensive player has not fallen for the ploy; let's say he has thought to himself, just before the ball is snapped, "I know that they know that I know that they . . ." This time, he stays home. And this time in the sucker play, the runner -- and his teeth -- are thrown for a loss. 'Fumblerooski' & Spy-Catchers

Some veteran football watchers are of the opinion that college coaches are more creative than those in the NFL. Nebraska, for instance, uses a play that involves fumbling intentionally. In this play, the quarterback lays the ball on the ground the instant he receives it from the center. He then fakes a pitchout to a halfback. Meanwhile, a guard grabs the ball and scoots toward the end zone.

The "Fumblerooski" has worked at least three times in big games for coach

Tom Osborne. His Big Eight colleague, Barry Switzer, used it Friday in the Orange Bowl for Oklahoma and scored a touchdown.

Very little out of the ordinary is on display in the NFL. Redskin fans used to wonder why it took George Allen all of training camp, sometimes up to six weeks, to decide whether halfback Larry Brown should run left or right. Allen always refused gimmicks; probably, he and most other coaches remember that Nebraska also lost each of the games in which its "Fumblerooski" fetched a touchdown. And, of course, Oklahoma lost the Orange Bowl.

Still, the Saints' Jim Finks, himself a quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the early '50s, believes the NFL is stifling creativity. Plays being signaled from the bench tend to produce robotic quarterbacks.

The practice of situation substitutions is another creativity-stifler, he believes. This strategy can be compared to specialization in medicine. Where one family doctor once was enough to take care of a patient, there are now cardiologists, neurologists, anesthesiologist and internists. Instead of an all-around offensive or defensive player, football teams also have specialty players who are brought into the game only in certain situations. This tends to reward some less-than-complete players -- and confuse the paying customers.

The reduced role of the quarterback, like that of the family doctor, is part of this trend.

"Years ago," Finks said, "the quarterback had to have total grasp {of his own offense and the opposition's defense}; now, he has become somewhat of a mechanical man. It's a matter of how well he executes what's called for him, although veterans do have lots of input. But no longer is a quarterback turned loose to develop a plan as the game unfolds."

In the '80s, nearly all defensive coaches defend substitution patterns that resemble rush hour at Metro. They insist that players most capable of stopping the likely offensive play ought to be on the field.

So a lineman effective against run plays trots to the bench on third-and-20, since a pass is likely. If it makes sense strategically, it also creates confusion for fans unable to keep track of which players are in fact playing.

"In Sam Huff's time," said Finks, referring to the mid-'50s and a good deal of the '60s, "you knew he would be the middle linebacker. Come hell or high water, first-and-10, second-and-short, on the goal line, he'd be out there. All that's changed."

It has changed to the point that if the Redskins' Neal Olkewicz does his job at middle linebacker on first down and stops the almost obligatory run, his reward is to be yanked from the game.

"Once the game starts," Finks said, "I think it ought to be controlled by the players. But coaches no longer turn it loose. When's the last time you saw a player even make a decision about {whether to accept} a penalty without looking toward the sideline?"

There's even the possibility that too much thinking is going on in football these days.

"Everybody is better trained; there is more time devoted to the game; more teaching tools are available; every play of every practice is filmed; it's a 12-month game. And yet so much thinking has taken something away from the game," said Finks.

And where's the thrill of yesteryear? NFL lore insists that the brightest coaches decades ago were the ones who best practiced counterintelligence. And the spymaster of 'em all was Poppa Bear himself, George Halas of the Chicago Bears.

When Schramm's Rams would play in Chicago each year, they would have no practices at scheduled times or fields. Halas surely would have an aide, disguised as a groundskeeper or equipment factotum, crack the workout.

"What we'd do," Schramm said, "was get on a bus and ride around. When we saw a mostly vacant playground, we'd stop the bus, get off and work out for about a half hour or so. Then we'd stop, figuring that by that time somebody would have called Halas to tell him where we were.

"We'd get back on the bus, ride around again until we saw another playground we could use, hop off and continue practice."

The spycatcher tradition was continued by George Allen of the Redskins, who learned spy cunning from working as an assistant to Halas in the early '60s.

Before Super Bowl VII between the Redskins and the Miami Dolphins in 1973, Dolphin coach Don Shula was asked if anyone watching practice might be a Redskin spy.

Shula smiled. No, he said, but a little old lady could be seen pushing a carriage with a baby inside that looked quite a lot like smallish and boyish-looking assistant coach Charley Winner.

But all those off-field war games are passe' now. In the '80s, tough guys don't spy.

Jaws of Defeat

Like everything else popular and worthwhile, football has taken advantage of increased time and technology over the years. Coaches and players can afford to work 12 months a year, and they scrutinize the game as never before.

Still, a moment that gives hope to many brawn-over-brain fans occurred in a playoff game 12 years ago.

The Cowboys beat the Minnesota Vikings, 17-14, on a long touchdown pass to the appropriately named Golden Richards. It seemed like a triumph of computerized coaching and high-tech strategy from the bench.

But in the dressing room, offensive tackle Pat Donovan crooked a finger. When I arrived at his locker, Donovan proceeded to list everything that had gone wrong on that game-winning play.

His list of sins reached nine. It was both baffling and reassuring. The computerized Cowboys could break down -- but still survive on the field.

Football has evolved into an age of technological enlightenment -- but smart men still win on dumb luck.