Maybe a football team can win with an ordinary offensive line. Maybe. This is certain: It cannot win with a poor line. These faceless fellows in the pit help quarterbacks get rich, but their names are pronounced to the paying customers only when they have botched it nicely. Jimmy Carter told us life is unfair, and for once he is right. The Redskins and Cardinals proved the value of these mystery men yesterday.

Only three weeks ago the Cardinals beat the Philadelphia Eagles, 24-14. Yes, these sad-sack Cardinals of yesterday . . . these Cardinals who couldn't come close to scoring against a team on a four-game losing streak . . . these Cardinals who allowed six sacks by a team averaging two sacks a week -- the very same St. Louis Cardinals three weeks ago beat the mighty Eagles by 10 points.

A seeker of truth held his ball point pen at the ready when he put the question to George Starke, the veteran offensive tackle of the Redskins who did his undergraduate work in the Ivy League and therefore qualifies as a sage in shoulder pads.

Tell us, sage, how is it possible that the failing, fading, falling Redskins of the last month -- losers of four straight games for the first time since LBJ was urging our boys to bring home the coonskin from that big road game overseas -- how could the Redskins destroy, by yesterday's 23-0 score, a St. Louis outfit good enough to beat the Eagles?

"This is football," Starke said sagely. Oh.

Turns out, as Starke went on, the Cardinals' victory over the team with football's best record is no surprise.

"Us losing five games," he said, "is much more surprising than that. We're a better team than some of the teams we've been playing. We're better than Oakland (though a 24-21 loser) and we're better than Seattle (though a 14-0 loser). And we're better than St. Louis. I expected to beat St. Louis."

That's because, at last, the Redskins' offensive line is of a piece. The sage Starke points out that the anonymous brethren need two or three years of work as a unit before they can master the complexities of line play that go unnoticed by anyone without access to the game films. Heavenly peace and contentment settled upon the Redskins last year when Starke, Terry Hermeling, Bob Kuziel, Ron Saul and Jeff Williams turned into a solid, respectable line.

Joe Theismann had time to throw it. John Riggins had room to run it. And by season's end, the Redskins were scoring 30 points a game against everybody, including the cursed denizens of Dallas, It is no coincidence, then, that this year's team suffered mightily when both Starke and Hermeling were out of the lineup with knee injuries. The same thing happened in 1978 when, off to a 7-2 start, the Redskins lost Starke with a knee and wound up 8-8.

"What's happened this year reminds me of '78," Starke said. "They don't miss us offensive linemen until we're gone. But now we're all back. Hermeling is at his peak, and I'm at my peak -- both in our early 30s -- and we've got the line back together now. Sure, it's important. Look at St. Louis today."

Do we have to?

It was terrible.

Only three weeks ago, the Cardinals beat the Eagles. Yesterday the Cardinals' offensive line was so bad it couldn't have knocked Phyllis George on her hairdo. Every time quarterback Jim Hart looked up, here came another Redskin blitzing. Six times he was sacked for a loss of 53 yards. Another dozen times he ran out of concern for his children's future. The man deserved hazardous duty pay for this one.

All because those mysterious offensive linemen were missing. Three regulars didn't play because of injuries. And the reserves, who had performed admirably enough in last week's 21-13 los to Los Angeles, were beaten at every step yesterday by a Redskin defensive line that showed no sympathy for their brethern in distress.

"We were getting after them right from the start," said Dave Butz, the Redskins' left defensive tackle. "They had two new guards and one of them wasn't 100 percent. So they weren't real strong up the middle, and you have to have a strong middle to play us because we have good strength and speed there. And we ran more stunts and blitzes than normal because of their new men in there. They couldn't be expected to pick up all our stuff. You just can't pick it up overnight."

The key thing, butz said, was the Redskins' ability to so dominate the Cardinals' makeshift line that the wonderful runner, Ottis Anderson, could run nowhere. Anderson had only 18 yards the first half, 25 more the second.

"Keeping Anderson from breaking loose was what won the game," Butz said. "All he could do is come up to the line. He had no place to go. He just kept running back and forth, instead of up and down the field."

Butz chuckled softly.

The idea of O.J. Anderson running sideways pleased softly.

The idea of O.J. Anderson running sideways pleased him.

"And that opened the floodgates," Butz said, "because if Hart can't get some yards on first and second downs, here we come blitzing on every down. That's what teams have been doing to us, and today we got to do it to them."

"Look at Hart," Starke said, contemplating the erstwhile Pro Bowl quarterback who was 13 for 32 yesterday. "He lost a couple of his linemen and, jeez, it looked like Gangbusters out there."

"We wanted to be as aggressive as heck," said Rich Milot, a Redskin linebacker credited with 1 1/2 sacks, "and not worry about making mistakes."

Teams in losing streaks become conservative. The more they try to avoid mistakes, the more they make. Worse, they no longer make the big plays that turn certain defeat into improbable victory. Losing four in a row was beginning to eat away at the Redskins' resolve to be daring, but now that the team is on a winning streak -- "We've got a string of one going," Butz said -- a guy with ears could hear two words repeated time and again in the Redskins' locker room.



Confidence, as in this from Diron Talbert, the old tackle: "We kept our cool pretty well all the time during this bad stretch. Jack Pardee kept us together. He hasn't screamed at us too much. Oh, yeah, he could have. When you don't do well, a lot of bad things can happen. We'll get some confidence from this one. That's good. Confidence is great to have. But this one meant more to us than just confidence. We were at the crossroads. We had to win. At some point, you gotta quit losing."

Playoffs, as in this from Monte Coleman, the young linebacker: "We have nine more games and I hate to even talk about it, but we still have a playoff chance. We can get in the playoffs. It's not impossible."