It is the football equivalent of three-putting, of stranding a runner on third base with nobody out, of the bull prancing from the arena with 37 ugly knives in his neck. The Redskin goal-line offense is such that whenever they muster a first down inside the 10 thousands of the faithful begin to scream: "Oh, no."

The numbers that set up the final score -- and victory for the Saints -- yesterday, the ones that cut right to the marrow, are these: The Redskins had the ball for 15 plays after first down inside the 10 -- and produced 10 points and a total of minus-three yards.

"I think it's fair to say," said a prominent member of the offense, "that we'll take a long look this week and come up with different ways to score."

Not different plays, for as the offensive line coach, Ray Callahan, said: "There are just so many plays you can use down there -- and I think we've got'em all." Different ways.

The truth, of course, is that a team has only two options to advance the ball and keep possession, regardless of field position: Unless a Rich Mauti is gracious enough to fumble a punt, it can run or pass.

So the idea is to keep the defense confused about the when and where of the offense. For the Redskin goal-line troubles, the cure may be a change from macho to moxie. Or for a while at least.

There is a reason the Redskins have been running all those straight-ahead plays when they need less than the length of Jimmy Carter to score a touchdown. They want to create the image of swaggering toughs able to win the battle of cliches that decide games.

When the going gets tough, Jack Pardee began preaching in training camp, the Redskins get tough. Inside the 10 is tough, mano a mano -- and the best way to establish this rough-and-rugged attitude is what is known as "straight ahead butt-kicking."

Except that straight ahead lately has meant straight backward.

Even casual Redskin watchers, however, have noticed that when Joe Theismann uses those healthy legs of his -- and the threat of a pass -- on option runs to the right he scores. How complicated can it be not to use that play more often the first two downs?

"For one thing," said a player who wanted to be both honest and anonymous, "that kind of play is passive instead of aggressive. We call those (inside running) plays 'attitude plays,' where desire and strength is supposed to get it done.

"The rollout isn't giving up, but it is showing less than total confidence in the line. Of course, if you don't score on the runs, the receivers are gonna growl, and if you don't score on the rollouts the linemen will gripe."

But if the Redskins don't score either way all Washington gets testy. The government begins to crumble. That sort of thing. So will Congress please pass a resolution requiring the Redskins to offer some finesse now and then -- or until the blockers and runners regain their confidence?

Whoever it was that said 90 percent of football is 75 percent mental surely had the Redskins in mind yesterday. Or so it seemed, as the Saints quickly got the Redskin offense to blinking.

After the first series of downs, Theismann and his keepers might have been asking: Who are those guys?

The Redskins came into the game reasonably sure they could run on the Saints but could complete only short passes. With that in mind, Theismann shortened his dropback, from seven steps to five.

And still had his first attempt batted down.

"It's possible the Saints had Joe scouted pretty well," another player said. "You'll notice that most of their rushes were up the middle, to take advantage of Joe not being all that tall, to cut off his eyes.

"Joe's been staying in the pocket more this year, so maybe the Saints figured they could take advantage of it, that he wouldn't scramble out of trouble because he wouldn't try to."

Theismann did escape the unsaintly New Orleans front four during the Redskins' one drive that ended with a touchdown, for 22 yards on third and 19.

Still, he was trapped an unforgivable seven times.

"They did a lot of stunts, a lot of tricks," said right guard Jeff Williams. "We have a couple of ways to counter that, with zone blocking or man-on-man blocking. Well, when we were supposed to be zone-blocking we were man-blocking. And when we were supposed to be man-blocking we were zone-blocking.

"We'd have two blockers on one of their guys, but that left another one free. That happened several times. But we'll get over it."

"Got to," said Callahan.