A year ago, the Washington Redskins' offense was being lauded as one of the most innovative and effective in the National Football League. Joe Walton, the offensive coordinator, was a genius and Joe Theismann was the quarterback of the future.

Now, with the Redskins floundering at 1-4, the offensive system is being questioned. Walton is being accused of being too conservative and Theismann appears to be in one of the worst slumps of his career.

Theismann, however, is one of the first to defend the system, even though he has been battered and intercepted using it.

"I believe in our offensive system 100 percent," Theismann said yesterday after a workout that was supposed to last 20 minutes had stretched into 120 minutes. "I don't think there's any question that it works. The problem is that the guys have to learn it on the run. It's like training camp.

"Just look at what injuries have done to us. We have a rookie fullback in Ricky Claitt, a halfback who was a fullback all his career in Wilbur Jackson, a tight end who just joined us a couple of weeks ago in Rick Walker and a rookie wide receiver in Art Monk. We also have a new third-down back in Bobby Hammond.

"You can't expect these people to have a complete grasp of the system in this short of a time. It took me two years to grasp it and I'm still learning. But you can't abandon it just because it doesn't appear to be working like we want it to. It takes time. It will come as people begin to understand it better.

"Our offense possesses everything you could want in an offense. It can be explosive, wide open, conservative or whatever. But before it can be any of those things, it has to be understood, and we're going through a process where people are trying to do that. I think it's coming and, when it does, we'll see a marked improvement.

"You can't be forced into throwing," Theismann said, "and when our offense is working right, we aren't. The defense doesn't know what we are going to do or when.

"I have to be the one to make things happen, though, because I have a better working understanding of the offense than anyone else (of the players). I have to do what I've been told, but if there is a breakdown, I have to make something happen. The breakdowns are happening less and less.

"No matter what you do on offense, you have to have a system and it takes time to really master it," he said. "Even if you throw the ball every down like some people would like us to do, you have to work on your routes and your pass protection.

"I think the system we have is one of the best around because it can be anything you want it to be. But, like any system, it has to be mastered first and we're in the difficult period of trying to do that.

"We have something to hold on to and to build from, which is more than some teams have, and we don't want to abandon that. We're faced with certain realities and one of them is that it takes time for people to learn a system. You have to learn how to walk before you can run. We'll just have to ride out the storm until everyone learns how to walk."

The Redskins were at their lowest two weeks ago after having been shut out, 14-0, by the Seattle Seahawks. They feel the 24-14 loss to the Eagles was the beginning of the climb back.

"A sense of belief is starting to come," Theismann said. "It got to be a lot more fun in the Philadelphia game, and I really think we'll be ready to go after Denver next Monday night."

The Redskins already are three games behind the Eagles and the Cowboys and it would be tough to find anyone away from Redskin Park who thinks they'll make it to the playoffs. Theismann, however, says he isn't just blowing smoke when he says the playoffs are still within the grasp of the team.

"We started out 6-0 two years ago and then faded, so there's no reason to think we can't rebound and play great the rest of the season after a slow start. No one is quitting or saying wait until next year. Once we get the injuries licked and once the new people and the people in new positions really get used to the system, we'll be okay. It just takes time and we have to be patient."