Guard Jeff Williams sat in a nearly deserted locker room at Redskin Park yesterday and pondered the most discussed question these days in Washington sporting circles.
"Why are we 6-2 when everyone thought we'd be losers?" he repeated. "There isn't one good answer. There just aren't one or two reasons. Things have happened so fast that I don't think any of us have sat down and tried to figure it our ourselves.
"All we've done is try to keep it going."
The Redskins' magical, mystical ride through the first half of this National Football League season all but defies explanation.
Here is a team comprising a few name players and a lot of free agents, aging veterans and low-round draft choices breathing the same rarefied air of success that fills the lungs of their counterparts from Dallas and Pittsburgh and San Diego and New England.
On paper, it shouldn't be happening. But it is -- and the Redskins seem to be getting better and more confident every week as they climb closer to a playoff berth that seemed far out of reach before the season.
The fairy tale could still have an unhappy ending. This is a fragile team, lacking superior personnel strength to overcome the major injuries that have not hit the club so far. It is a squad that has had to play to its potential eight straight weeks just to have a chance to win, a most difficult task to keep up over 16 weeks.
Long ago Jack Pardee and his staff recognized the weaknesses of their players before analyzing their strengths; that fact could avoid any fall.
Washington fans might be witnessing the best job of coaching in the league. The Redskins are breaking new ground in terms of personnel use, and their innovations are proving that imagination, thought and, yes, a bit of daring, can make up for acknowledged inadequacies.
"They are coaching the hell out of us," linebacker Pete Wysocki said. "I know that I've walked into every game this year feeling that I was as prepared as I could be and that the game plan we had was going to work.
"You have to have that kind of confidence to win and they are giving it to us."
Against Philadelphis Sunday, 36 Redskins were in for at least one center snap in nonkicking situations. Considering that of the nine remaining roster members, two are backup quarterbacks, two are kickers and one is injured, that is a remarkable participation, especially in a close game.
"We probably are playing more people than anyone else in the league," Pardee said yesterday. "Dallas uses a lot, but not as many as we do. But that's got to be our key. We are going to keep using everyone more and more. It's the only way we can win."
Most NFL teams will put in an extra secondary back on passing situations and some use extra wide receivers and pass rushing specialists. But in most normal contests, clubs don't exceed the use of 28-30 players on nonkicking downs.
What Pardee and his staff have done is identify the best and worst talents of every player and then employ each athlete to accent the positive and protect the negative.
"It makes teaching and coaching a lot easier," Pardee said. "If a guy has to learn only certain responsibilities for every game, then he is less likely to make mistakes and more likely to remember his duties. And he should play better."
Consider, for example, the use of rookie linebacker Monte Coleman in the Eagle game.
Coleman is woefully inexperienced but he could have the most raw playing ability of any Redskin. Pardee has been itching to take advantage of that talent, so on Sunday, Coleman was given one role. On obvious second-down passing situations, he went in and concentrated on man-to-man coverage, always to the wide side of the field.
"You put a guy like Monte in with a defense that you know won't change that much," Doc Urich, defensive coordinator, said. "That way, there won't be a chance of him doing something he's not ready for yet. And by getting experience, when we need him for more time, he should be ready."
Said Pardee, "We have produced a team of specialists. We have trained the players to play according to down and distance, both on offense and defense.
"I really believe in keeping a lot of players involved. It keeps their attention, it keeps them involved in meetings, it makes them feel a part of what is going on. And the competition pushes everyone to be better.
"The result is we are a better team now than we were at the start of the season. Each week we've just about played to our potential. We know there is room for improvement but we have to play our best each time out to compete."
Since the club didn't have that many solid, completely talented players, Pardee decided, at certain positions, to go with two or three athletes whose combined abilities might equal one Randy White or Walter Payton.
So now you see the Redskins playing seven defensive linemen, five running backs, two tight ends, six defensive backs and six linebackers during most games.
"And we are still learning about our players, especially our young ones," Pardee said. "We are still trying to find out what each can do, so we can strengthen ourselves by using them the right way."
There is more involved in this success story, however, than lineup shifts. Game plans have been eyecatching, especially on defense. There have been sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle switches in formations and alignments from week to week to try to prevent opponents from taking advantage of weaknesses.
"We are by no means a super team," said Urich. "But we do things that make us better.
"That's what makes it so satisfying. It's taken us two years by now the players respond to what we want. They are willing to play roles, to change assignments, to trust us. A lot of guys might not want to come out but they go along with us. They see it works."
Despite the calm way Pardee and his assistants discuss their maneuvering, there is considerable risk involved.
How much security is there when you line up two rookie linebackers side by side, as the Redskins have done at times this season? How much security is there when you have your strong safety, Ken Houston, playing middle linebacker or your cornerback, Tony Peters, also filling is as a linebacker and safety in the same game? How much security is involved when you have a linebacker turn his back to the ball before the snap as Wysocki did Sunday?
"Oh, I guess there is some gamble involved," Joe Walton, offensive coordinator, said, "but we study these people very hard and we think we have a good reading on all of them.
"We don't ask them to be superstars if they can't be superstars. We ask them to do things within their ability.
"But we can't show up every week doing the same things. We've got to catch the other guy off balance."
Perhaps Pardee had to play a longshot this season. This was an acknowledged rebuilding year, during which the Redskins were changing from the George Allen era to the Pardee regime. They were getting younger, stronger, faster, but not necessarily better.
Yet if Washington had stumbled home 6-10 or worse -- as it seemed possible before the first kickoff -- there might not have been a chance to rebuild for another season.
Instead, the shadow of Don Shula hovered over Pardee. It seemed so logical. Pardee out, Shula in.
Now that rumor has quieted considerably. A turnabout the rest of the season by the Redskins could revive it but both the players and coaches say a repeat of last year's disastrous finish won't happen.
"You'd have to have no pride at all to accept that happening again," Wysocki said. "We are going up now, not down. We've won our last two games; last year, we had lost our last two, even if we had the same 6-2 records.
"There is no reason to believe we can't get better. We are loose and we believe. Everyone is getting along. We've found out now what it means to win. We had to learn that and we have.
"We are developing a killer instinct, something we haven't had here. The older players are keeping the young guys in line, the young guys are pushing the older guys and the middle guys are just playing good football."
If Pardee felt any pressure before this season, he never acknowledged it. He was convinced that last season's collapse was brought on by too many factions within the team, too many slow and weak players and too many injuries. fChange those conditions, he said, and the squad would improve.
So General Manager Bobby Beathard brought in fresh, if lightly regarded, young players, cast off most of the remnants of the Allen era and added enough talent to improve depth.
Then Pardee took this still old (average age 27 1/2) club to training camp and became a Captain Bligh. He preached togetherness and aggressiveness and hitting. It was the most physical summer veterans could remember and now it is paying off.
"The seeds of this team were created there," fullback John Riggins said. "We all got tough together."
Some gambles also turned out right. Middle linebacker Harold McLinton and kick returner Tony Green were cut, creating shock waves, but Neal Olkewicz and Buddy Hardeman have proved to be adequate replacement. Top draft choice Don Warren has developed faster than expected at tight end and Pardee's pets -- those young linebackers -- have played a far greater role than even he thought possible.
But even these pleasant surprises, as Pardee calls them, would not be enough to account for the team's success. The Redskins needed quality seasons from key players and key units and those needs are being fulfilled.
Quarterback Joe Theismann, whose previous performances read like an EKG chart, is playing sensationally.He has become a team leader while producing the consistency and maturity at age 30 that the coaches felt he had to display for Washington to win.
The secondary, the strength of the defense, is even better than anticipated.
Lemar Parrish may be the best cornerback in the league and newcomer Peters, obtained in what seemed like a minor preseason trade with Cleveland, is so good he is forcing the coaches to give him game time.
The offensive line, which fell apart at the end of last season because of injuries, has allowed only 10 sacks, third best in the league. And it is probably blocking better than the running backs are running.
Mark Moseley, the man with the anvil leg, has been almost perfect with his kicking. He has booted 14 or 17 field-goal attempts in his role as a major weapon in the Redskin offense, which often plays to set up his boots.
And the special teams, the pride of this club, have continued a long tradition by leading the league in kick coverage.
This is a squad that does not beat itself. It has committed only 14 turnover (compared to opponents' 24), has a 50 percent success average on third downs, has completed 61 percent of its passes and has given up only 111 points, best in the NFL.
The offense in conservative, relying on the running of Riggins, Moseley's kicking and on Theismann's short passes to control the ball. Pardee preaches errorless football, figuring his players will make up for the close-to-the-vest approach with enthusiasm -- and a bit of luck.
But again the coaches appear to have made a sound decision when devising the offense. Walton lacks a breakaway halfback and a game-breaking end, so he had to find another way to move the ball, even if it lacks glamor.
"We've gotten to a point where I think everyone on this team figures it can play with anyone in the league," Urich said, "including Dallas and Pittsburgh. Why not? We've stayed with everyone else."
Pardee won't quite go that far. He says that the Redskins "can match up pretty well with most teams on our schedule. That doesn't mean we are going to win all of them, but if we play hard and play as a team, we can be competitive."
Over the last half of the season, when the Redskins play five teams with current records of .500 or worse, they will have to avoid major injuries, hold up defensively against the run and continue to get outstanding efforts from Theismann. And the young players have to continue to excel.
But so far, even such veterans as Diron Talbert are having a ball.
"I've got to admit I'm happy," said Talbert, the last remaining member of the Over-the-Hill-Gang. "I've seen a lot of rebuilding teams win a lot of games, this is just a different way of rebuilding.
"Hey, I'm not sure where they are getting all these young players. But they sure are playing well."
Cornerback Joe Lavender, who aggravated his sore knee against Philadelphia, was listed by Pardee yesterday as an unlikely participant against New Orleans Sunday in RFK Stadium . . . "His knee is about the same as at this point last week," Pardee said. Lavender played briefly in the first half. Peters will start in his place . . . Guard Ron Saul (sprained ankle) and tackle Terry Hermeling (sore knee) both will be slowed early in the week, although Pardee hopes both can play Sunday . . . Peters got a game ball Sunday for his effort against the Eagles. His wife was expecting a baby yesterday. "Not a bad weekend," Pardee said.