"Officials are to blow the play dead as soon as the quarterback is clearly in the grasp of any tackler."

That is Paragraph 12 of the NFL rules changes this season -- and its impact was as significant as any Redskin block or tackle against the Lions today. Once the Redskins were frustrated with it; without it, they probably would have lost the game they needed to win so badly.

It is known informally as the Tommy Kramer Rule, because if that Viking had not gone into such frightening spasms on national television after being rammed by a Ram last season, quarterback maiming still would be legal.

Now the officials judge when a quarterback is hopelessly trapped, and it figures to cause even more controversies the rest of the season. It is an excellent rule; it seemed to have been used too soon today and the Redskins benefited by 10 points. They won by three.

Because CBS botched the replay, there were no immediately firm conclusions.

"Good," said the main character in the play, Redskin quarterback Joe Theismann.

You recall the situation: the Redskins were ahead, 7-3, early in the second quarter and had third and 10 from the Lion 10-yard line. Theismann was hit by linebacker Jon Brooks, fumbled and the ball was recovered by the Lions' James Hunter.

No Redskin was capable of catching Hunter. It was a certain touchdown, assuming he could run 80 or so yards without tripping. But he was stopped by the referee, Gene Barth, who ruled Theismann was "defenseless" before the fumble.

"Well, part of me was on the ground," Theismann said, "and the other part was on the way."

Last year all of Theismann would have had to be on the ground before Barth would have stopped the play -- and Hunter would have been celebrating and the Lions would have been ahead by three points instead of behind by seven after Mark Moseley hit a field goal on the next play.

And the way Detroit played when offered another chance at victory later suggests Barth ought to occupy a warm spot in Redskin hearts, if not be given a game ball.

"As soon as he (the quarterback) gets in the grasp we have to determine if he's in a defenseless position," Barth explained. "And if he's in a defenseless position, the play is dead right now. He (Theismann) was in the grasp of one guy and another fellow was coming up over the top on him.

"When I blew the whistle, he was in the grasp of the first fellow. The play was dead."

And so were the Lions. Or so it seemed. They had a look of doom about them as the Redskins, blocking as well as anytime in a few years, increased that 10-3 lead to 17-3 at the half and then to 24-3 at the end of the third quarter.

They were not.

If the Lions could count, or if Leonard Thompson had told somebody to hustle off the field on the field-goal-defense team when he trotted on in the last 18 seconds, they might have won in overtime. Still, they took both the Barth call and the final penalty with remarkably outward calm.

"I saw it (the Barth call) differently, "Coach Monte Clark said, "but I don't want to get into criticizing the officials."

Theismann had not been enthusiastic about the rule, because it would seem to hampher his ability to shake loose from a tackler and scramble for extra seconds and perhaps extra yards. Although he still might be troubled by it, Theismann was grateful for that quick whistle today.

"Every crew I've played in front of for the last four or five years," he said, "they know Roger (Staubach), Terry (Bradshaw), myself and Archie (Manning). They know scrambling is part of our game -- and to take it away is like taking the sky dunk from Julius Erving."

Could he have gotten free that critical time?

"I don't know," he said, "Probably not."

But that is not quite the point. The act of making Theismann defenseless seemed to cause the fumble.

Might today's helpful whistle be harmful in some future game? Do such circumstances ever even out?

Yes.

"All I could think of when I saw those (12 men-on-the-field) flags was last year against Atlanta," Theismann said. "We lost a big game on account of Atlanta getting an extra chance to kick a field goal -- and now something like that works for us."

Theismann also will recall the Redskins giving Houston a 41-yard advantage on a punt last week, in part because 12 players were on the field. The special teams coach, John Hilton, was on the sidelines this week keeping count on his herd.

Clark called the loss "tragic" and that is appropriate for him. He is an excellent coach, on the verge of creating a consistently fine team in San Francisco before losing his job when the self-centered Joe Thomas became general manager.

In his second season here Clark's Lions seemed able to win the NFC Central Division this year. Then the regular quarterback was hurt. And two defensive regulars also missed today's game with injuries.

For the foreseeable future, Monte Clark is not one of life's winners.