When it was suggested four months ago to the general manager of the Chicago Bears, Jim Finks, that the Redskins would not be a playoff contender this season, that they might be exceedingly fortunate to win six games, he seemed surprised.

"Never underestimate enthusiasm," he warned. "And never underestimate what a bunch of gung-ho guys playing together can get done."

Implied was the belief that Coach Jack Pardee, who Finks had hired to revive the Bears, would extract the most from the Redskins. Which he clearly has done. At the moment, only Tampa Bay's John McKay is even close to Pardee for NFL coach-of-the-year consideration.

Pardee has a habit of beginning his answer to a question with another question. So he might say at this point of the season: How good are we? How good is anybody else in the league?

And he would say, publicly at least: nobody really knows. The once-awesome-looking Steelers were thrown everywhere but into the Pacific Ocean by the Chargers Sunday in San Diego. Craig Morton and the Broncos are alive and well. A preseason playoff favorite, Atlanta, is 4-8.

Of the four teams that have beaten the Redskins this season, two (Pittsburgh and Houston) have 9-3 records, one (Philadelphia) is 8-4 and the other (New Orleans) has a reasonable chance to win the NFC West Division.

So while the Redskins' rampage has been startling to nearly everyone, it has not been a fluke. Nobody has discovered how the Redskins are pulling their sleight of hand on defense, although the better teams are learning.

"Neal Olkewicz (the free-agent rookie) has solidified the middle," said strong safety Ken Houston. "Teams had begun to run up the middle on us. Now (with Olkewicz at middle linebacker the last six games), we've shut that down.

"And that's made the pass defense stronger."

The Redskins have taken the ball from the opposition, through interceptions and fumble recoveries, a remarkable 20 more times than they have given it. Some reasons are obvious; many are not.

Joe Theismann has had the sort of performance so many thought he could not muster. This was a show-us-or-else season for him and the Redskins. His final excuse, Billy Kilmer, was gone.There were whispers around the league before the season:

"He's about as good as he's ever going to get -- and that's mediocre at best," said one NFC executive.

"Joe's flighty because he's flustered -- and he's flustered because he needs two tackles," said an AFC general manager.

No quarterback has played better than Theismann so far, not when one considers the obvious offensive liabilities. Two of the Redskins' top three draft priorities are halfback and wide receiver.

"He's not making the same mistakes twice anymore," said the offensive coordinator, Joe Walton. "He's working even harder now. He wants to get better. That's the big thing.

"Joe's been super several times, but what's probably gone unnoticed is that the times when he wasn't super sharp he came out with a pretty good rating. And we've kept the offensive unit pretty much intact.

"It doesn't take much to get an offensive machine out of rhythm."

With very little running-back speed, the Redskins still have run. And while the offensive line probably has not gotten enough credit for it, one of the runners is even less appreciated.

That would be Clarence Harmon, probably the most versatile player in the league. Who else is averaging nearly five yards on rushes and nearly 12 yards on pass receptions? Who else makes every clutch play humanly possible? Who else returns punts in a pinch and, at 195 pounds, is part of the wedge on kickoffs?

Also largely overlooked has been the balance of the Redskins' passing attack. Danny Buggs, who usually mans one wide-receiver position, has 35 catches. Ricky Thompson and John McDaniel, who usually split time at the other, have 33 catches between them.

The tight ends have caught 26 passes, the running backs have caught 74. This way, the Redskins can largely disguise their weaknesses. Opponents cannot overplay one receiver, because all of them are active.

Presumably, this is why the Redskins run those Benny Malone sweeps that invariably lose yardage. They want that threat (?) planted in the minds of opposition defensive coaches.

Still, the most anonymous player having an exceptional season is the largest Redskin. How can anyone not notice Dave Butz? Because so many in pro football, insiders as well as fans, tend to dwell on spectacular plays rather than why they happened.

All of Washington marvels at Lemar Parrish's interceptions; a Butz hand in the quarterback's face makes some of them possible. Invariably, Butz is occupying the extra blocker that allows someone else to get the attention-grabbing sack. Frequently, he frees an Olkewicz to make a tackle.

Also, Butz knows that Sunday's game against the Giants in New Jersey will be more pivotal than much of Washington realizes. He is among the first to point out that the Redskins have scored only two touchdowns in three years against the Giants on the road.

"This will be the truth of the pudding," he said. "Will we have a relapse or continue to dominate on offense, defense and special teams? Actually, against the Cowboys was the first time we put all three together in the same game this year.

"These aren't the same Giants we played before. We want to make the playoffs, but we also want to go into the playoffs with a couple recent victims under our belts."