In the lobby of the team's headquarters the night before his Redskins lost to the Cowboys in Dallas, Jack Pardee drifted into a knot of reporters. One of them noticed the coach's Try God lapel pin and joked that Pardee might be looking ahead.

There was an awkward silence and Pardee began to walk away. Then, turning -- and turning serious -- he said: "It's good to know you've got ONE person on your side."

He has two. It says here that any notions Redskin owner Jack Kent Cooke has about firing Pardee as coach ought to be dismissed, as quickly as the other bad ideas that sometimes invade his mind. Pardee should be allowed to fulfill the final two years on his contract for the simple reason that he still is a fine coach, even though the Redskins have suffered one of the most drastic trapdoor collapses in memory.

Being a fan -- and sometimes an owner -- gives a person a license to be irrational. Ordinarily reasonable folks, who can calmly react to adversity in their own businesses, who have the patience to find the root causes of trouble and correct them, go daffy when the town team suddenly begins to trip over its helmet straps.

The Redskins have been dreadful most of the season, sometimes classically so, to the point even where Cooke must have considered calling some cronies in New Orleans and saying: "Ah, got any extra blank paper bags?"

If he has not already done so, however, Cooke should ask himself: which is more surprising, last season's 10-6 record or the one this season that might be 6-10 only if Joe Theismann miraculously becomes mobile again? Anyone at Redskin Park who insists on the latter has been whispering one thing to Cooke and something else to the rest of us.

Publicly, Cooke has been asking if his players have spirit. Privately, he should be asking how many can play. And discovering that very few are more than very ordinary. Spirit is admirable but also has its limits. If it were otherwise, Soupy Sales would be an NFL coach and Tom Landry an insurance salesman.

If not shaking hands after games were so blessed important, the Saints would have been more than 14-40-2 with Billy Kilmer as their quarterback. Kilmer has been special his entire athletic life; he became a winner here when his teammates included Larry Brown, some Hall of Fame receivers and a wonderful defense.

A stone-hearted realist could cut the present Redskin roster from 45 players to eight, plus or minus two. These are the ones who could not be replaced rather quickly, Theismann and Art Monk, Mark Moseley, Lemar Parrish and a few others.

One of those irreplaceables was John Riggins. Cooke thought otherwise -- and was wrong. On principle, he can make a solid defense for refusing to bend to Riggins' outrageous demands; he cannot dismiss a coach for failing to win while denying him such an important tool.

Hindsight suggests a flukish element to last season's record, linebackers falling on fumbles in end zones, extraordinary comebacks in the final moments and Moseley seemingly being able to kick a football from the 50-yard-line of any NFLfield up, up and away over a designated 10-yard area of the Kremlin Wall.

There also was some inspired coaching involved, some brilliant defensive tactics and an offense that overcame very little speed and outscored 11 of the 14 National Conference teams.

Pardee and his staff have not gone from geniuses to jerks in 12 months. The rest of the league began to pay attention to a team that had been assumed dead before the season but instead rose to within about a minute of the playoffs. Other NFL coaches also are bright -- and this year they discovered who the Redskins were hiding and the keys to making them vulnerable.

Great football teams are composed of cores of excellent players, a few on offense and defense that a thoughtful coach uses to bring glory and security to himself -- until they erode. Vince Lombardi was unique, in part because he never had to replace most of his Packer cornerstone. Bart Starr was his quarterback in the 1960 NFL title game and also Super Bowl 2 in 1968. Many of his immortals were Packers when Lombardi arrived in Green Bay, and after he left.

The core that made the Redskins worshipful was fading quickly when Pardee replaced George Allen three years ago. (Keep in mind that Allen in fact left the Redskins, that there was a contract awaiting his signature here for months. There remains a whiff of conspiracy, one man being the agent for both Allen and Pardee, though I maintain Allen left the Redskins because he knew far better players were waiting in Los Angeles.)

Three years later, that Redskin core is even smaller. That fact became vivid this week, when the Over the Hill Gang jingled its spurs in public once again, for Kilmer. That early '70s collection of Redskins was full of character and characters; this early '80s collection of Redskins is nearly void of each. Fans here might audibilize some mildly popular lyrics and say: "We have nothing against you, sweet Redskins, we just wish you were someone we loved."

For this sorry state, Pardee is no more blameless than Allen and Cooke. Very little went wrong with the Redskins last season; very little has gone right this season. Until the Redskins lost to Dallas in the first game this season, we thought Pardee might actually be able to perform an athletic miracle, win grandly without suffering to gain the high draft choices necessary to make that possible.

Pardee is mortal after all.

But how good a coach is he?

The truth is that we honestly do not know. Pardee has twice been voted coach of the year -- but his record after almost six years is five games below .500. He left the Bears after three years and a progresssion of 4-10, 7-7 and 9-5. In the two-plus years since Pardee left, the Bears are 22-23.

Pardee's coaching graph is as erratic, as full of staggering heights and depths, as his personal life is even and calm. He left the Bears before anyone could get a totally accurate reading. After an 8-8 first season here, the digginess of last year is offset by the depression of this year. Could there be any more muddled balance?

Teams in the NFL are so equal of late that any sort of angle is significant, including coaching. Clearly, Pardee must accept fault for some of what has gone wrong. Perhaps he was too stubborn in not keeping more younger players. With the offense of late, the team seems to have no chance to win. If he dressed as conservatively as he makes his game plans, Pardee would wear a belt -- and suspenders -- and keep both hands glued to his sides.

But these are not firing offenses. Pardee's problem is a lot of mediocre Redskins nobody can keep from playing to their natural level. And getting hurt. And being too obvious with the skins they need to commit to survive against better players. Pardee surely will not want this season to be etched on his athletic tombstone; neither should he be buried because of it.