JOE THEISMANN, the Redskins quarterback who traveled successfully from potential to actuality this year, probably meant it when he said after the game in Dallas: "Don't tell us everyone's proud of us. Don't." Then he added: "We may have lived up to other people's expectations, but you have to live up to your own."

Expectations are the stuff of football. And at the risk of offending the scrappy Mr. Theismann, our expectations for the Redskins last Labor Day were not great. Coach Jack Pardee had broken up the Over-the-Hill Gang. The team was to spend the season "rebuilding" -- losing with young players in hope that they would improve or be replaced by next season. There was no way the Redskins were to be taken seriously. At least that's what the experts told us last August and, to tell the truth, that's what we believed ourselves.

Yet there were the Redskins, on the last day of the season, fighting the vaunted Cowboys -- the New York Yankees of professional football -- for a division championship. They didn't belong on the same field, the experts still said, making the Cowboys 9 1/2 point favorites.

In this city, conversation took a holiday. People who don't know the difference between a safety blitz and a post pattern found themselves cheering and clapping. Here in a city of strangers, people who come from someplace else and so often return to it, in this beleaguered city where even the team is a transplant, it was great for a whole Sunday afternoon to have everybody rooting for the Washington Redskins.

Maybe we all knew in the quiet reality of our hearts that our perennial nemesis, Roger Staubach, would do what he does like nobody else since Baltimore's Johnny Unitas. If we did know it, none would admit it, as we cheered for a courageous Washington team.

To Coach Pardee and his staff, to all the valiant players: applause -- for the season, for the excitement, for helping this many-parted city to agree on something.To Dallas: a simple message -- congratulations, but wait 'til next year.