The Washington Redskins didn't even go down kicking this time. They began losing the game -- and perhaps this sad and silly NFL season -- today when Coach Joe Gibbs turned to quarterback Joe Theismann and said something like: "You ever punt?"

Not so long ago, the Redskins did very little wrong each week. In this season that reached 1-3 today with a 45-10 loss to the unbeaten Chicago Bears, they have done very little right. You know trouble is coming when the Theismann triple threat is as a punter, a tackler and a blocker.

The numbing numbers today were: Redskins up, 10-0, after the first quarter and down, 28-10, with four-plus minutes left in the second. Nobody could recall such a bizarre turnaround. The final wasn't as bad the 73-0 mauling another gang of Bears hung on them in 1940, but it was the worst loss since a 53-0 whipping by the New York Giants in 1961.

Gibbs this week had preached a return to "fanatical commitment" -- and until punter/kickoff specialist Jeff Hayes put his instep to the ball eight seconds into the second quarter he got it.

The Redskins opened with an I formation and a We attitude -- but ended in confusion that has grown all too familiar. Among the questions, even within the team, is whether more leadership was lost in preseason cuts than was gained with more talented replacements.

"The only advantage we have right now," said Pete Cronan, "is the shape of the football. It has yet to bounce our way."

This is a team that made the playoffs last season, that lost in the Super Bowl the previous season and that won the Super Bowl the year before that.

In the glory times, Theismann once hummed a pass that bounced off the shoulder pads of Nick Giaquinto and into the arms of a startled Don Warren for a touchdown. Good fortune begets good fortune.

With 14:52 left before halftime, the Redskins lost Hayes for two to six weeks with a partially torn quadriceps (thigh muscle. That was before his kickoff settled into the hands of the Bears' Willie Gault.

"Soon as I hit the ball," Hayes said, "it snapped. I heard it pop, then I felt it pop."

What the Redskins heard next near their bench, as Gault twisted the boost on his world-class hurdler's speed a few notches, was whoosh! Hayes had a chance at cutting off Gault, but already was immobile. Much farther downfield, rookie Barry Wilburn also had a chance, but Gault stutter-stepped past him. That was 99 yards of Bear touchdown tracks that bounced Washington off track the rest of the game.

With Hayes out, the Redskins were without anyone skilled at punting them out of immediate danger. Theismann and reserve quarterback Jay Schroeder were the panic-button replacements.

Theismann got the call first because he was in the flow of the game. Some flow. He had been buried by Tyrone Keys before his first pro punt since he played in the Canadian Football League 14 years ago.

"They told me to kick it right," said Theismann, grinning slightly, "and I did. Dead right."

The effort netted one yard. Three feet. Thirty-six inches.

From the Redskins' 14-yard line, the Bears immediately passed for the touchdown that put them past Washington for good. All those wonderfully positive intentions, all that sermonizing about "gut checks" all of a sudden were all aflutter in a flood of points. Hurricane Gloria at least offered some warning.

"The talent and aggressiveness is there," linebacker Rich Milot said. "But sometime along the way we just fall apart."

Schroeder had practiced punting perhaps a dozen times during training camp. Cleverly, Gibbs figured he could do no worse. Sure enough, Schroeder's first kick was 22 times as good as Theismann's.

At halftime, Schroeder left the team meeting for punting warmups. His first one went into the stands, creating the notion that fans, rather than players, might be signaling for fair catches the final 30 minutes.

Never happened. In a pinch, Schroeder was more than decent, even using his training as a minor league baseball infielder-catcher to scoop up the one-hoppers that Cronan was hiking.

"I'll try anything," Cronan said, "but I don't believe I'm capable of snapping the ball and also punting."

Redskins gifts came in unusually wrapped packages, and the Bears were eager to rip them apart. A penalty on sub defensive tackle Dean Hamel for pushing an official here, a mixup on pass coverage there and the Bears were even nastier than in that 23-19 playoff victory over the Redskins last season.

The bad times are a-rolling.

"One of the most devastating plays I've ever seen in football," Gibbs said of Gault's gallop and Hayes' fall. Also, guard R.C. Thielemann gained the starting job at right guard before the game and then lost it early on with a hyperextended knee.

Theismann has not been totally terrible these four games, although he now is last in punting in addition to being the next-to-last rated NFL quarterback.

His suffering: nine interceptions (to two touchdown passes), three fumbles and 11 sacks for 83 yards in losses.

"Feast or famine," he said. "We gained more yards running today (192) than teams probably will do the rest of the season against the Bears."

Not quite licking his wounds, Theismann added: "Their front four is the best in football. And when you add those (blitzing) linebackers, it's a whole lot of pressure in a heck of a hurry."

Fans expecting more would like to see a team reversal in a hurry. But the future hardly seems bright if the special teams stay so generous on kickoffs.

What's the sense of scoring if the other guys are going to be in your end zone 20-some seconds later? Each week, the Redskins talk bravely about not digging themselves into a deeper hole -- and somebody goes and brings an extra shovel.

"From adversity comes strength," philosopher Cronan said. "Or disintegration." At the time, his back was very close to a wall.