From the moment he assumed command of Washington's Redskins in 1978 until the chilling sack that removed him so suddenly, Joe Theismann was the man who always came to play. Neither his body nor his attitude ever seemed to concede much to the aging process, even at 36 -- the threshold of senility for most performers in the National Football League. But after 71 consecutive games as the starting quarterback -- the star fell and the understudy stepped in cold to deliver a stunning performance. No one wished it would happen this way, but the transition was going to happen. No one knows if No. 7 will return next year, but this rocky season may have taken its toll in more ways than did that failed flea-flicker on Monday night.

Only last week did Mr. Theismann make a mild concession that proved more on the mark than he could know: "To this point, it's probably the worst year I've had in football. Let's not say the worst season yet, because it's not over. Let's wait until it ends, whenever that is, and evaluate it then." There wasn't time to wait. Backup Jay Schroeder, 24, stepped in remarkably calmly to complete 13 of 20 passes for 221 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions on the way to a hard-earned, tense, critical victory.

So the attention of Washington's fans turns quickly to a new field general. But Mr. Theismann leaves for now as the most prolific passer that this football-crazy capital has ever had -- ranking 11th on the all-time NFL passing list. That's what deserves to be savored as he works on recovery.