The Redskin locker room was nearly empty. The operative hopeful note, from players and coaches, had been that they had played better against the Broncos; that, perhaps, it had been their best game of the season. Clarence Harmon would have none of it.

"That's losers' talk," he snapped. "A loser's attitude. Sure we played better, but I'd rather win and play terrible. Any day."

It will be further into the future than Jack Pardee cares to look before the Redskins go into a game they clearly should win. But Monday night's contest was one they could have won -- and it illustrated very clearly the difference between last season and the one now more than a third completed.

A year ago the Redskins won nearly every game against teams of equal ability. Only twice in 16 games, after a four-point home loss to the Saints and the then-annual defeat by the Giants in the Meadowlands, could they be genuinely angry with themselves, as they were after the 20-17 loss here.

Small errors largely influenced the outcome. There were two wasted second-half timeouts; Joe Theismann thought the first down marker was two yards behind where it actually was during a sideline scramble and a promising drive stalled.

The Broncos were as ailing as the Redskins, two regular linebackers missing the game and a third playing despite tender ribs. Their best offensive lineman, guard Tom Glassic, did not play much of the game because of a broken hand.

So whatever numbers seemed positive immediately afterward -- and there were many -- become less significant when the Redskins realize they probably ought to have been higher. Washington had a fine blend of running and passing, a total of 314 yards in all. The Broncos usually surrender much less.

The Redskins had just one holding penalty, although at the absolute worst time. And Theismann being trapped three times would not seem outrageous were it not for the fact that the Broncos had mustered just four quarterback sacks in the previous five games.

Washington is unaccustomed to being beaten by Craig Morton. With the Cowboys and Giants throughout the '70s, one of the certainties of most games involving the Redskins was that he would blunder badly at exactly the wrong moment. His entering a game often was just the life raft the Redskins needed to save themselves.

Denver Coach Red Miller either disregarded history or failed to understand it when he benched starting quarterback Matt Robinson with about four minutes left before halftime and a 7-3 lead. Redskin fans surely were heartened. Morton is only slightly more mobile than the Rockies and fully capable of panic against a spirited pass rush.

Before losing Glassic, the Bronco offensive line has allowed an ominously high 16 quarterback traps. Anyone who has feared for Theismann's life behind his blockers are reminded that is more than twice as many sacks as the Redskins has allowed their first five games.

But Washington rushmen could down Morton just twice. Worse, they never caused the errors that had become almost a tradition. The enduring memory for such as Diron Talbert and some other veteran defensive linemen is Morton actually evading them and hitting Rick Upchurch on an improvised pattern for the winning touchdown.

In other years, M-o-r-t-o-n would have been how the Redskins spelled relief from a victory drought. Last year, the offense would have invented a way to come back even from that Mortonizing and either won in the final mements or sent the game into overtime. Mark Moseley's nightmarish performances have been sending tremors of doubt rippling through the entire team.

"When you're having problems," Coach Pardee said, "they load on by the dozen."

What he means is that when the offense finally shows it can come from behind and gain a lead, the defense shows it cannot hold it. Defense still is Pardee's major concern, for nearly everyone there is about as healthy as he is going to get.

And still incapable of stopping even mediocre runners.

For running backs, Washington's defensive line is an ego booster of the highest order. Older fellows find it rejuvenating; youngsters sense it means job security. The Redskins almost dare opponents to run -- and they have been doing it and getting away with it.

Any defense that has both outside linebackers planted outside the ends and on the line of scrimmage is saying: "Betcha can't run inside on us." That dare is being taken, and won.

Middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz is asked to patrol an enormous amount of territory by himself -- at least seven yards to his right and left -- and the linemen often are undable either to make the tackle or control the blockers enough for Olkewicz to do that job. Or perhaps for the strong safety to. A year ago Ken Houston was heroic at times; he lost his position before the Bronco game.

The five-game portion of the schedule that began here Monday is where the Redskins must excel to salvage even a .500 season. Denver was vulnerable, as are the Cardinals, Saints and Vikings in consecutive weeks in RFK Stadium and the Bears in Chicago. a

But each of the upcoming teams, when healthy, has a runner at least as gifted as any the Redskins have helped become briefly famous this year.

Still, the offense is beginning to stir, With the regular blockers at least able to play full time, if not completely mended, it figures to be more imaginative and productive.

Rookie wide receiver Art Monk is being used more and more each week -- and becoming more and more comfortable with how to drift through defense mined with elbows and survive.

"This is the closest we've come to last year," Theismann said, "the closest to mixing up the offense and moving the ball like we know we can."

One encouragement for Pardee was that the immediate postgame injury report seemed mild. Nobody who entered the game injured seemed to have left it hurt more seriously.

But even that bit of good news is tempered for Pardee. Every silver lining, after all, still touches a cloud. Tight end Don Warren, perhaps indispensable at the moment, has been playing on what amounts to a broken leg. He was not hobbling after the game, but he said of how the leg felt: