"The cycle" never quite leaves Bob Ferry. Its presence is unseen, unheard and untouchable, but very much felt. Not enough that he wakes up screaming in the night. But certainly enough to cause tossing and turning.

"I think it's always on your mind, especially mine, because my motivation for doing everything is fear of losing," the Washington Bullet general manager said. "I get less satisfaction out of winning than hurt out of losing. When we won the NBA championship (in 1978), I enjoyed it for about a week, then started worrying about how to defend it. Like everything else in this business, winning is not a lasting thing.

"It's inevitable in all sports. You always think the down cycle can happen, and by the design of the draft, plus players getting old, it usually does. You do your best to make sure it doesn't, but you know it eventually will."

It always does. Even to the best. The Yankees. The Celtics. The Packers. Even -- mon Dieu -- the Canadiens. If first place is just around the corner, last is just down the block.

"I thought for a while you could avoid the up-down cycle," admitted Gil Brandt, Dallas Cowboy vice president for player development and generally acknowledged as one of the main men in his field -- since 1966, the Cowboys have missed the playoffs only once. "But the only way to do it is if you're extremely fortunate and you can make draft deals and trades for first-round choices," Brandt said.

"You have a hard time avoiding the slipping back process. Unfortunately, the multitude of fans don't understand that you can't consistently take the 28th best player in the draft and compete with the first. That's why a well-managed team won't drop to the bottom, although it won't always win everything."

The last 25 years have been numerous examples of how far and fast the mighty have fallen. The New York Yankees tumbled from a seven-game World Series in 1964 -- their fifth series in five years -- to sixth place the next year to 10th the next, then went until 1976 without a pennant after winning all but two American League flags from 1949-64. The Los Angeles Dodgers won consecutive pennants in 1965-66, then finished eighth and seventh the next two seasons.

The Celtics, perhaps the epitome of a pro dynasty, captured 11 NBA titles in 13 years through 1972, missing the playoffs the next season. They regrouped to win titles in 1974 and 1976, then suffered through the two worst years in the franchise's history before achieving the league's best regular-season record last season.

The Bullets, champions in 1978, runners-up in 1979 and playoff qualifiers for the last 12 seasons, needed a collapse by the New York Knicks and a last-day victory to qualify again this past season: Their future does not look promising.

The Green Bay Packers won five NFL championships and two Super Bowls from 1961-67, then finished below .500 nine times in 12 seasons. The Pittsburgh Steelers won no titles at all in their first 40 years, then took four Super Bowls in six years.

And the Montreal Canadiens, who have all but copyrighted the Stanley Cup, won four straight from 1975-76 to 1978-79, then lost in the quarterfinals last season. More embarrassing, they lost the seventh game at home, in the sacrosanct Forum, to a team combined from the two clubs which had the worst records in the league to years ago.

Is there any method to this madness?

"I've given this subject a tremendous amount of thought," admitted Steeler Vice President Art Rooney Jr., "and I don't know what the hell to think. The big thing to do is avoid the down part of the cycle. You don't want to get into the peaks and valleys. I'm not lazy and I don't think I'm stupid, but I still can't figure it out."

For their first 38 years, the Steelers were the winning boys of the NFL.

They hit bottom in 1969, at 1-13. Three years later, they were 11-3 and in the American Conference championship game. Two years after that, they held Minnesota without a touchdown in Super Bowl 9. There has been and still seems to be plenty more where that came from.

"For our first two decades we were mostly worried about surviving as a franchise," Rooney said. "The two big things that turned it around for us were getting television money, which meant we could compete financially, and the draft. The draft was designed to keep competition even, and for us, it's worked."

And how. Starting with Mean Joe Greene, their first pick in 1969, the Steeler draft list is chock full of all-pros. L. C. Greenwood. Jon Kolb. Franco Harris. Terry Bradshaw. Jack Ham. Jack Lambert. Lynn Swann. John Stallworth. Dwight White. Mike Webster.

"The most obvious reason teams can maintain consistency at the top is by bringing in new blood," said Redskin General Manager Bobby Beathard, who as director of player personnel for the Miami Dolphins brought in enough talent to keep that club at the top of the sport from 1972-74 and a constant contender for the rest of the decade.

"They've done an unusually good job of bringing in new talent and avoiding complacency," Beathard said. "Even a great coach can't keep them up forever without new talent. There's not a lot of turnover at Pittsburgh, but they've got good backup people. You stay on top by bringing in a few new people a year to replace the old ones. When you make wholesale changes, then you're in trouble. If you're going to get up there and stay there, you have to do it through the draft."

Until they chose Art Monk on the first round of this year's draft, the Redskins had been without a No. 1 choice for 12 years. They'd been lacking most of their others as well, a legacy of the George Allen philosophy that new blood isn't new unless it's 30 years old or more.

"You can get away with that for a while," Beathard said, "but eventually it catches up with you. You've got to be able to bring in the key bodies at the right time."

For some teams, the time always seems right. The Steelers. Earlier in the last decade, the Minnesota Vikings, although they were winless in four Super Bowls. The Los Angeles Rams, always super during the season but less super the closer the Super Bowl came, until this year, when they were as super as any club save the Steelers. And, to the Redskins' lasting chagrin, the Cowboys.

Year after year, the Cowboys seem to produce some magic when they most need it. A Tony Dorsett. A Tony Hill. When Bob Lilly, lee Roy Jordan and Ralph Neely, all of whom seemed to last forever, eventually didn't, Randy White, Bob Breunig and Pat Donovan took their places without missing a count.Memories don't sack quarterbacks or wipe out cornerbacks.

No wonder the Cowboys never spend Christmas at home. When your club has the depth to trade two draft choices and two players to an expansion team (Seattle) for a draft pick which turns into Dorsett, you take the choice and run. Just another hedge against the downs.

"It's never that easy," Brandt cautioned. "You have to remember that the draft is also why a team that's down has a great chance to advance. I'd be willing to take just one choice in 12 rounds if it could be in the top five each year.

"You're always conscious of the down cycle. You never expect it to come, and you do everything you can to prevent it. When it comes, as it eventually will, you prepare a lot harder than when you're in an up. We'll find out how ready we are, because our test is now (with the retirements of quarterback Roger Staubach, the team's heart and soul, and safety Cliff Harris, its blood and guts). The Steelers' (test) comes when (quarterback Terry) Bradshaw retires."

Like the cycle, the test, be it a comparative pop quiz, midterm or final, always arrives. The comprehensive one occurs the year after a team wins the championship. Getting there isn't just half the fun. It's all of it. Staying on top is work. The higher they get the farther they fall.

"The players get fat and complacent," said Cedric Tallis, Yankee executive vice president. "They think they're bearing down, but they're not. You can't just reach back and grab it. It's impossible to keep the pressure on all the time, so everybody's going to go down sometime."

The Yankees didn't just go down. They plummeted. The rulers of the baseball world for 15 years became exiles for the next 12. And they didn't get fat. They got old. In what seemed to be a week, the dynasty was dead.

"When they had freedom of selection, everyone wanted to be a Yankee," explained Joe Reichler, assistant to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn and a leading baseball historian. "Players preferred the Yanks because they were winners and they played in New York. It was a tremendous attraction for a young player. You could play in New York and almost be guaranteed extra money.

"They had it so good for so long that eventually they let the farm system fall apart. They just didn't bother to get any replacements, and everybody got old at once. Then, when the draft came in 1966, a player had no choice where he went. The Yanks became just another team."

Not any more. They returned from ex ile with a vengeance, winning free pennants and two World Series from 1976-78. Owner George Steinbrenner would have everyone think it's him, all him and nothing but him.

Certainly his bottomless bank account and splashy free agent signings of Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Tommy John, Rich Gossage, Luis Tiant, etc., have been significant. But of equal, if not more, value, is the team's farm system. Last year, Yankee teams won every minor league championship.

"Reentry (free agency) bridges the gap if you have the money and are willing to spend it," Tallis said. "But the real answer is to have a productive minor league system which provides talent not only for your club but talent which you can use in trades."

Now we know the Orioles' secret. No team in baseball has won more games since 1957. Only three have a better won-lost percentage since 1954, the club's first year in Baltimore.

In the game's ancient history -- before free agency -- when teams lived and died by the draft, Baltimore seemed to live better than its competitors. Skillful scouting, hard work and perhaps a bit of luck combined to give the O's a seemingly endless supply of talented youngsters. Of their many stars, the only two who weren't homegrown were Frank Robinson and Mike Cuellar. They came to town because the team had enough bodies to offer in return.

Since 1976, when players could offer themselves to the highest bidder, the Orioles have lost Reggie Jackson, Bobby Grich, Wayne Garland, Don Baylor and Don Stanhouse to other teams.

Yet, they still win.

"We've been fortunate that the farm system has continually produced," General Manager Hank Peters said. "Part of that is skill because we have excellent scouts and we've retained them. But even if you've got the best scouts in the world, there's always some luck involved. Your scouting director can make an educated guess, but not much more. Then there's always going to be a Buddy Bell (the Texas Ranger third baseman) in the 18th round. But that's sheer luck.

"Sometimes you make trades that don't look important on the surface but turn out to be later, like (left fielder Gary) Roenicke last year. If you combine the luck and skill of getting a guy who's not a prime player but later turns out to be, you can delay the arrival of the down cycle."

Perhaps that's the best that can be hoped for. Like the Russians against Napoleon, teams fight a rearguard action, delaying the seemingly inevitable until, perhaps, it can be staved off.

"From most clubs to win, four players have to have their best year simultaneously," explained Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck, who between his current club and former holdings such as the St. Louis Browns probably has had more bad teams than any other owner. "You count on those guys to do it again, and all of a sudden you're in third place.

"You can get off the bottom through the draft. It has a bearing on cycles, but it's not the great equalizer. It's no cure-all. You still have to get people who can produce. Now, with long-term contracts, it's tougher to get that delicate balance between youth and experience. In the old days, you could have a guy for 10 years. You can't count on that any more. If you get too cold now, you can still play with pride, but sometimes the wheels run out."

When they do, of course, it's time for a new set. If you're Steinbrenner or Ray Kroc (Padres) or Gene Autry (Angels), you buy them as often as you can.

For the comparatively poor, player supplies are only as available as the balance in their checkbooks, all of which have bottoms and many of which never are opened. So they beat more bushes more frequently, knowing all the while they don't make college drafts like Oakland's from 1966-68 (Rick Monday, Sal Bando and Jackson) anymore, and hope that there's a hidden supernova among the stars.

"It's difficult to make changes with a winning club," Peters said. "You don't do a lot of things with a club that has been highly successful unless it's old and has been patched together. Then you go with the same cast, and if it's not up to the previous year, you have problems. Your chances of bouncing back aren't good because the problem has developed before the cure. It's easier to make changes when you don't win, because it glosses over deficiencies.

"When we got Brooks Robinson, we knew we'd have him for 20 years. We'd like to be able to say the same thing about Eddie Murray, but we can't. You've got to think in six-year cycles now, which really restricts your long-range planning. It's hard to embark on even a one-year plan.

"That just has to be accepted as a face of life. You've got to try not to mortgage the future for the present. The goal is to be competitive year in and year out. Certain years we'll be competitive to the point where we'll win."

But even supposed invincibility is no defense against the down cycles. Witness and Celtics.

Boston didn't invent the game. It only owned it. Some day the roof of the Boston Garden is going to collapse from the weight of the Celtic's championship banners. Eleven were hung from 1956-69. The missing years are 1957-58, when the then-St. Louis Hawks beat the Celtics in six games to win the title, and 1966-67, when the Philadelphia 76ers stopped Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Suddenly, after the 11th title, it was over. Bill Russell and Sam Jones started their second careers, and the Celts sank out of sight for a few years. s

"I guess it's inevitable, atlough we disproved it for a time," said Boston General Manager Red Auerbach, who coached those title teams. "You've really got no place to go but down. Other teams really want a piece of you, and to avoid the down cycle you've got to keep them (the players) motivated and wanting to win.

"But the biggest factors are injuries and retirement. You can keep them as motivated as possible, but an injury or retirement can start you down immediately. And there's nothing you can do about it. Those are circumstances beyond your control."

Ferry knows more than he cares to about that subject. He still winces at the thought of how pleasant last season could have been had Mitch Kupchak and Bobby Dandridge stayed healthy.

"A champion usually is relatively injury-free," he said. "Look what happened to us this year. We went from having a deep, young bench to playing it. And we couldn't do a thing about it."

Sometimes there isn't much that can be done about the draft, either Winning begets low choices, which beget a slow turnover, which begets advancing age, which begets the down cycle.

So after making the playoffs for 12 consecutive seasons, the Bullets haven't had too many high picks. But all it takes is one. After two woeful years, the Celtics were able to choose Larry Bird, the rookie of the year and the catalyst for the team's 61-21 record.

Now, true to the cycle, they're back on top in more ways than one. Because Auerbach could convince a mortal enemy to buy something that had no value, Boston had the No. 1 and 13 picks in the NBA draft. All Auerbach did was permit a disgruntled Bob McAdoo, whose future was long past, to become a free agent. When he signed with the Detroit Pistons, and Auerbach signed former Piston M. L. Carr, one of the best sixth men in basketball, the Pistons threw in their first two draft choices as compensation. Welcome home, Celtics.

"You'll always have had the ups and downs because of the draft," Ferry explained. "It's designed to make the weak teams stronger, although it doesn't always work that way. But I'd be naive to think that luck isn't a big factor for everybody. There are certain limits to which good management can take you. But after that there's a lot of luck -- no, let's say fate, because luck sounds so cheap -- in winning a championship. I don't think you're going to see anything like the Celtics of old again."

If 20 National Hockey League teams have their wish, we also won't see anything like the Montreal Canadiens of past and present. Enough is enough. Five Stanley Cups from 1955-56 to 1959-60. After four losses in the semifinals, four cups in the next five years. A year out of the playoffs, two more cups in three years, two years out of the final, then four straight cups. Last season they showed slight vulnerability, losing in the quarterfinals.

"It's inevitable that no one will stay on top," said Philadelphia Flyer general manager Keith Allen. The man knows whereof he speaks, having molded the expansion (1967-style) team in to a two-time Stanely Cup winner (1973-74 and 1974-75), then missing the final for three years before losing it last season to the New York Islanders.

"I can't see any dynasties developing like Montreal's in the last four or five years. There are too many good teams now for that to happen And when you're on top you get the last drafts. Unless you get a good one, you often find that your veterans can no longer do the job and the kids aren't the caliber you'd like. This is why it's a revolving affair."

Not for the Canadiens. While their foes have been mired in it, they've slipped out the side and back doors for years.

Every time the league expanded, Montreal was ready: Have three or four players, will trade for No. 1 choice, Maybe they'll start for your new team. So what do you say? Most of the time, it was "Yes, please and thank you."

"We started a farm system before all the other teams," explained Sam Pollock, the club's general manager during the height of those heists, "and the allowed us to build a nucleus of many good players. Then, when expansion came, we were able to offer the new teams more and better players because their loss wouldn't affect us as much.

"There's a hell of a lot of difference between a pick in the first and fourth rounds, and even between the first and 21st pick in the first round. Naturally, any team trading a choice in the first five took a great risk. But you certainly take a chance when you trade for a choice two of three years away when you don't know where it will be."

Sounds terrific, and noble. But one doesn't have to be Sam Pollock to know you won't have insomnia after trading two or three players to a new team for that team's first choice four years later.

Still, just as the rest of the league was anticipating the Canadiens' return to mortality, there they were with the first choice in the last month's draft, courtesy of a 1976 deal with the Colorado Rookies. The Rockies received Ron Andruff and Sean Shanahan. Anyone who can locate those two deserves his own Stanley Cup.

But do not abandon hope, all ye who enter the Forum.

"Of course, you can't win the cup forever," Allen said. "But you don't have to fall to the bottom. You will fall a little, but it doesn't have to be all the way."

Sometimes part way is bad enough. "Basically," Ferry said wearily, "you just battle to keep from losing."

You may win a few battles. But you never win the war.