By the time the Redskins finish their game here Sunday against the Cardinals, Coach Jack Pardee finally should know how much both his team and his quarterback, Joe Theismann, have improved since last season.

Although Washington is off to a 2-1 start and Theismann is throwing accurately and consistently, Pardee still is not sure whether he is in charge of a budding playoff contender or a quick starter unable to finish above .500.

The Cardinals represent the Redskins' first tough road test of the year. St. Louis came close to beating both Pittsburgh and Dallas and is favored by 4 1/2 points in this 2 p.m. contest (WDMV-TV-9).

For the Redskins to have a chance of winning, Theismann must continue to excel. He has become almost a Billy Kilmer clone -- but with lively legs -- as he executes his team's ball-control, short-pass offense.

Theismann hardly ever throws long anymore. And so far he has shown an ability to ad-lib correctly, either tossing away passes or scrambling for yards instead of putting up the ball for costly interceptions.

His passes may not wobble as Kilmer's did, but they are accomplishing the same thing: picking up short-yardage first downs while reducing the chances of sacks.

"With our offense and the way Joe is throwing short and releasing quickly, we aren't getting that many sacks," Pardee said. "Besides, with the receivers we have and the way our runners are making at least some yardage on every carry, his short passes are the way to keep our drives alive."

Against the explosive Cardinals, those long, time-consuming marches are a must. Pardee does not want to hand the ball over to St. Louis too many times, especially since the Cardinals' strength -- the running attack featuring rookie Ottis Anderson -- has proven most troublesome to the Washington defense.

And once the Redskins get behind and Theismann is forced to throw long, the whole offensive concept Pardee has tried to mold since training camp will disintegrate. The team does not have the speed at either halfback or receiver to strike quickly.

"We have to control the football," Pardee said. "If they get it enough, they'll be able to score points. We need to control it and score, too.

"We also have to play good defense against both the run and the pass. We can stack up against either one. And we can't mistackle their backs.

"And we have to stop their returns. They've had trouble with their field goals but Willard Harrell (return specialist) has been excellent."

The Cardinals will blitz Theismann more than the Redskin's first three opponents did. Working out of a 3-4 alignment, St. Louis already has forced eight turnovers and registered nine sacks.

"They are really improved on defense," said Theismann, who passed for only 59 yards against the Cardinals in one game last season and was sacked nine times in the other. "They are aggressive and they play well together as a unit.

"But I have confidence in what we are doing. Things have worked well and we are learning about each other more every week. I know I am comfortable in this offense."

Through the first three weeks, it has been hard to get a true reading on Pardee's team.

The Redskins have beaten two 0-3 foes, but also came close to upsetting talented Houston.

They have run the ball well at times, but also have fumbled at the most inopportune moments. Their defense has intercepted eight passes, but also has been sieve-like at times against the run.

"I've got a hunch we are going to play a good football game," said Pardee, who earlier this week predicted his team could win its next four games, all on the road. "We've had a good week of practice and we've shown we want to go out and give them a good game."

The Redskins can't afford to make mistakes. They have fumbled only four times and Theismann, while completing 38 of 61 passes, has tossed only three interceptions.

"We've talked and talked about cutting down on our errors," Pardee said. "We've also managed to reduce our penalties. That's the kind of football we have to play to win. We have no other choice."

Redskin management is envious of the Cardinals, who used a complete draft last spring to strengthen their team where they needed the most help: running back.

With the addition of Anderson and Theotis Brown, St. Louis has regained the dangerous balanced attack it featured at the height of the Terry Metcalf-Jim Hart years.

Now Hart, who is off to a lackluster start, throws less on the early downs and relies more on receiver Pat Tilley than speedster Mel Gray, still a long bomb threat.

"Tilley is their bread-and-butter man," Pardee said. "They will fake to the backs and hold the linebackers in and then find Tilly for an eight-yard gain."

Anderson also keeps the defense honest. The 210-pound rookie from Miami (Fla.) has the strength to run powerfully inside and the ability to turn outside when the middle is clogged. Although running behind a revamped offensive line, Anderson has gained 339 yards.

The Cardinals' no-name defense has proven most vulnerable to the pass, surrendering 205 yards a game, a statistic the Redskins have studied intently this week.

The major flaw in the Cardinal attack so far has been their field goal kicking. Steve Wood and Steve Little have combined to make only three of eight attempts, none outside 30 yards. But Harrell has averaged a conference-best 15.4 yards on punt returns.

"They are a revised, revitalized football team," Pardee said of the Cardinals. "They are the most balanced team we have faced. This one isn't going to be easy."

Pardee indicated tackle Dave Butz, still recovering from a knee sprain, might not play for the second straight week, "He's valuable to us but not at half-speed," Pardee said.