Joe Theismann's transformation so far this season from an unpredictable, inconsistent Redskin quarterback to a model of dependability has many roots.

Some of the change stems from the hours of study he spent during the off-season with Joe Walton, the offensive coorinator, which enabled both the coach and the player to understand each other better.

Some of the change stems from an improved offensive line that has given up only five sacks and is growing stronger every week.

Some of the change stems from a more dangerous running attack, which takes some of the pressure of Theismann's passing.

But perhaps the majority of the change stems from a day last May when Theismann suddenly realized the quarterback spot finally was his alone -- and that he also was stripped of the excuses he used to explain away his failures in the past.

"When I heard that day that they had released Billy Kilmer," Theisman said yesterday, "things changed. It was so wishy-washy last year, so indecisive. You have to give football players some credit for intelligence, but I don't think the Redskins were doing it last season.

"I realize they had to protect themselves, but when you are caught in the middle all the time, it's difficult to swallow. But when they let Billy go, I considered it a vote of confidence in me. And then I could go out for the first time and play football and forget about politics.

"The tug of war was over. This has been the first year when I've had a nice comfortable feeling. But it was up to me to show them they were right, that they had made the right decision."

No one at Redskin Park is having any second guesses about that May decision.Theismann, always blessed with outstanding athletic ability, now has corralled that talent within the confines of Walton's system. The result, at least through five games, is a standout pro quarterback.

"We all grow up," Theismann said with a big smile. "We learn. I've done things and said things I probably shouldn't have. There is nothing like the Redskin quarterback position. In this town, the pressure associated with it is incredible. Maybe it's second only to the president in terms of being in the spotlight. It takes time to adjust."

There still are 11 games left in the Redskins' regular season, more than ample time, Theismann realizes, to undo everything he has accomplished so far in the team's 4-1 start.

He needs, as Pardee put it, "to have one or two consistent seasons to convince the commentators and whoever else makes judgments" that Joe Theismann truly has crossed the line toward excellence.

"I feel I'm there, where I should be, but a lot of people probably thought that way last year too," Theismann said. "I'm not getting too excited, not now. I want to build from here, because I want this team to win."

And unless Theismann maintains his current high standards -- a league-high 64 percent completion average, six touchdown passes, only four interceptions -- Washington most likely will not be able to keep challenging for a playoff spot.

"He's the key, he's the man," center Bob Kuziel said. "We need our quarterback to play well, he has to start everything for us and Joe is doing it. We are winning because of him."

So much of what Pardee is trying to do with this team depends on Theismann's consistency.

The Redskin offense works diligently not to make turnovers (they've had only nine) while also controlling the ball through power runs and Theismann's short passing game.

The defense has been molded to play aggressively in an attempt to force turnovers. There is a lot of blitzing by the linebackers and bumping by the secondary to throw opponents off stride.

But that style can be fatiguing, so it is vital for the Washington offense to stay on the field as long as possible while the defenders rest.

"If we had other personnel, we might do things differently. But this is the way we think we have to play to win," Pardee said. "Joe had to come through and he has. The offense has kept down its mistakes, he's passed so well and they've put together time-consuming marches. As a result, our defense has been able to play better and more aggressively."

That defense now has allowed only 14 points in the last three games and just 67 on the season, second best in the NFL. Its 12 interceptions also is a league best.

"We are responding to how Joe is playing," linebacker Rich Milot said. "I don't think a quarterback in the NFL is playing better. It's got to pick you up."

Theismann also has become a team leader, much in the manner predicted by his teammates during training camp. By performing well on the field, he has inspired more confidence and respect than he was able to gather in five previous years of excessive talk, controversy and running turmoil with Kilmer.

The fine, guiding hand of Walton is stamped everywhere you examine this Theismann transformation.

Walton, a delightful, friendly man with a burning competitive instinct, has driven Theismann. In training camp, he was consistently critical, refusing to accept his quarterback's excuses for mistakes. He demanded perfection from Theismann, which meant an acceptance of the Redskin's offensive philosophy not the quarterback's.

"I wanted to be a winner," Theismann said. "I had been a winner at every level and I didn't think that should change now. By talking and working with Joe so much I came to understand his thinking better. I'm so much more comfortable now with what he is doing.

"Did I fight the system last year? Yes, I guess I did. I'd see a back open five yards away but I'd still try to throw it 15 yards into coverage. Now I take what the defense gives me and what Joe wants."

The Theismann who once consistently forced passes into the heart of the defense, the Theismann who once always tried for the spectacular to impree Coach George Allen, the Theismann who once scrambled without a purpose rarely has materialized this season.

"Give Joe credit," Pardee said. "He took advantage of the carryover from last season and learned from experience. He isn't that young (30) but in terms of experience, he is.

"He benefited from his mistakes. He saw what he was doing wrong. No one knows how really hard he worked to make himself better since last season. This is no accident."

Now when Theismann sits back in a pocket that, unlike 1978, rarely crumbles, he is spotting secondary receivers more readily, reading defenses quicker and throwing passes more accurately.

He rarely is asked to toss those long, prayer bombs of years past. But as he proved Sunday against Atlanta, when he enjoyed the third-best day, statistically, of his career, he can be just as dangerous now with his short-range passes.

"It was a good feeling, a great feeling," he said about Sunday, which he believes was his finest performance as a pro. "Everything clicked. My reads, my delivery, the line, the game plan, it was right on target.

"Everything is fitting into place, like pieces in a puzzle. Now when Joe sends in a play, I know why and what it is supposed to accomplish. Most of the time, I can predict the call ahead of time. I think that has made a difference.

Neither Walton nor Pardee is gloating over Theismann's showing, although the better he plays, the better it makes their offseason decision about the starting quarterback. Pardee merely says that Theismann's ability in individual sporting events long ago convinced him he had made a correct choice.

"When you watch Joe play racquetball," Pardee said, "he never forces anything, he never goes for the big play. He isn't the attacker. He lets the other guy beat himself.

"That's what he is doing now. Anyone who is a standout in an individual sport like Joe is in so many has to be a winner in a team sport, too, once he understands what that team is trying to do and why."

And the more Theismann understands, the more confident he becomes. He has yet to face a true crisis this season, when he plays poorly or runs into bad luck. But he's convinced his confidence level is high enough now to ward off the low points.

"I'm not a light switch, I didn't suddenly emerge," he said. "This is all a result of a long process. But to be honest, I was tired of my performances reading like an EKG chart, up and down, up and down.

"I wanted to be steady, consistent, reliable. If I was ever going to achieve those goals, I figured I better do it this year."