It was Sept. 2 and John McDaniel was sitting in front of a television set in Birmingham. He looked at his watch.

"Time for pregame prayer," he said and his mind wandered to what he imagined was the scene in the Redskin locker room before the NFL season opener against the Houston Oilers.

"Now Coach (Jack) Pardee is giving his talk," McDaniel said to himself.

And he shook his head and smiled. He had been cut two weeks before, but he still felt as if he were on the team.

"I didn't fall apart," McDaniel says now. "I wasn't going to let life pass me by while I sulked.

"But I like it in Washington and I never really felt I was away. Everything that happened that first game was so familiar. I lived every moment of it with them."

McDaniel does not have to imagine anymore what is happening in the Redskin locker room. He's again a part of that team, but he's not just another player.

Quite the contrary. Pardee says McDaniel "is a star, a major contributor. He's become one of the people we depend upon."

When the Redskins line up Sunday against the Philadelphia Eagles, McDaniel will be a primary target of quaterback Joe Theismann, who knows his wide receiver is in the midst of a hot streak that has his coaches thinking back to last season.

"This is how Johnny played after he came over here from Cincinnati," said Pardee, who re-signed McDaniel the day after the Oilers game. "He was catching everything thrown to him. He was outstanding. That's before he began tailing off."

McDaniel had caught only two passes this season prior to the Redskin game against the Eagles two weeks ago in Philadelphia. Filling in for the injured Ricky Thompson, McDaniel pulled in four theismann throws, then followed with two catches for 86 yards last week against Cleveland.

One play covered 62 yards, falling a couple feet short of a touchdown when McDaniel was dragged down from behind. It was evident that McDaniel once again was a bonafide NFL receiver.

His recent play is in stark contrast to that of training camp. McDaniel had trouble catching passes, he ran inconsistent routes and he seemed to lack energy.

Instead of becoming, as expected, a main cog in the Redskin passing attack after being the No. 1 receiver in 1978, he was waived so a rookie, Kris Hains, could be retained.

At that time, Pardee attributed part of McDaniel's problem to sore legs.

"We just couldn't wait any longer for him to come around," the coach said.

"I can't complain about what happened to me," McDaniel said. "I wasn't playing that well. I realize it, although maybe I wasn't playing bad enough to be cut. But that's their decision.

"Ever since I've been a rookie, I've never been a quick starter. I don't know how I even made the team that first season. I had to be lucky.

"This time my slow start caught up to me. There wasn't much I could do about it."

McDaniel says his knee hurt a little in camp, but it was something he got over in a week or two. One of his teammates says the problem was more upstairs: "He now has his head together more."

Whatever has happened, Pardee says a new McDaniel is now suiting up.

"It's like night and day, the difference between him now and before," Pardee said. "He's catching the ball, he's playing hard, he's concentrating, he's enthusiastic.

"Maybe getting cut did him some good. It might have caught his attention. But we sure like the John McDaniel we have now."

McDaniel can't point to any particular football miracle behind the transformation.

"Maybe the rest did me good," he said. "Maybe I found out how much I missed the game. I've been playing since I was 9 and and its a part of me.

I knew I had to play well to stay in it. Guess that has helped, too."

McDaniel had geared himself to planning a life without football. He was starting to contact business friends in Birmingham while contemplating tryout offers from a couple of teams, including San Francisco.

"They wanted me to come out and try out but I said I wanted to wait a while and get myself together," he said. "It happened so suddenly and I didn't want to make a mistake and rush into things.

"But when the Redskins called, I never hesitated. I packed my bags right away. I've always told people this is the Rolls Royce of organizations. I loved it here and I wanted to come back."

Ironically, McDaniel became a Redskin last season to fill an emergency. The club's wide receivers had a dreadful training camp and General Manager Bobby Beathard was forced to fill the gaps by acquiring McDaniel and Thompson.

This season, McDaniel again was needed by the team to eliminate a problem spot. Pardee, convinced that Haines was not ready for pro competition, did not like a situation where he had only two legitimate receivers, Thompson and Danny Buggs.

"When we cut Johnny Mac, we didn't think he would be picked up by anyone," Pardee said, "although we thought possibly San Francisco would be interested. At that time, Kris Haines was doing a good job on the special teams and we needed him.

"But if one of our starters got hurt, we just didn't think we had the right kind of backup people. We had to cover ourselves there and so we brought Johnny Mac back.

"Why? Well, we knew what he could do, he was familiar with our offense and sometimes you have to take a gamble. He's capable of playing in this league. We knew it and so did he. It was just a matter of him starting to do the things he is capable of doing. And he is."

Now all McDaniel has to work on is scoring when he gets to the one-yard line.

"I probably should have gotten in against Cleveland," he said. "But the field was so bad, I didn't want to try to change directions. Then I probably would have fallen down and looked like a fool. And I didn't want that to happen."

Cornerback Joe Lavender worked out yesterday and Pardee thinks his sore knee has progressed enough so he can start Sunday . . . Pardee says the Eagles can be likened to a matchup against Dallas. "We never talked that much before about the Eagles," he said, "but it doesn't take long to hate them . . ." Pardee put tight end Jean Fugett in the "available to contribute category . . ." A team source said tackle Perry Brooks twisted an ankle during closed practice but Pardee did not include Brooks in his injury report . . . Veteran trainer Joe Kuczo missed practice, a rarity, to undergo hospital tests, which were negative. He has been with the team since 1953.