"I didn't play well, and the people agreed with me." -- Joe Theismann

After every crash, there is a search of the wreckage to determine what caused it. Nobody would have been too surprised about the Redskins' offensive tailspin against the Cowboys yesterday in RFK Stadium had the major reason been anything except what it was: pilot error.

The debut of the offense of his dreams was horrific for Joe Theismann. He passed 48 times, more than he had during any game in his NFL life and only two short of Sonny Jurgensen's most prolific Redskin day. Much of what resulted was fine, exciting and productive.

But at just the wrong times Theismann was Jittery Joe, throwing either too soon or too late. Or worse. The Redskins would get up and down the field on a few flicks of Theismann's wrist and then he would inexplicably point Air Gibbs toward a mountain.

"Didn't meet the test today," he said.

Theismann threw six interceptions in all, although only four counted. The one that hit Charlie Waters bounced off his stomach and the one Bennie Barnes grabbed late in the game was nullified. Reluctantly, Theismann tipped his helmet to the Cowboys on three of the official intercepts. He will kick himself for quite a while for the fourth.

"One of my poorest (decisions) in years," he said, recalling the situation: Dallas ahead by 20-10 early in the fourth quarter and Washington with second and three at the Cowboy 26. Scrambling right, on the run, Theismann could have done any number of things that would at least have been acceptable.

He could have/should have poured mustard on the ball and eaten it, or thrown it toward one of the fans in the folding seats near the end zone that would be cheap anywhere but the NFL. What he did only rookies usually try, the toughest and most dangerous pass of all.

"Across the body going right," he said. "I thought I had Art (Monk). I can't tell you why I threw it."

Everson Walls is glad he did. Walls is the free-agent rookie cornerback Dallas was forced to use when a free-agent veteran cornerback, Howard's Steve Wilson, suffered cramps. The Theismanns of the NFL are supposed to write touchdown graffiti all over these Walls. Yesterday, Theismann threw a frame, a ball hanging so invitingly some still-sober customer could have caught it.

He apologized.

"When I get my level up to the level of the offensive line," he said, "we'll be okay."

If the reason Theismann seemed to be hurrying some of his passes was fear of being eaten alive by Randy White or Harvey Martin, that would be understandable. But the Baby Blockers held up well, or gave that impression to most of us watching from a safe distance.

With five minutes left in the game, after Dennis Thurman plucked an interception on third-and-goal from the four and dashed 96 yards the other way, the fans could tolerate no more. They booed Theismann for perhaps the first time since he became a Redskin. It was not the ugly, blood-lust anger once directed toward Billy Kilmer, but disgust over errors from a fellow who should know better.

Why?

Was part of it the right thumb Theismann had jammed midway through the first quarter?

"That didn't affect my performance," he said.

Offensive imbalance? The Redskins ran just 18 times.

"No."

Theismann looked every questioner square in the eye and said: "It was not the offense; it was not the offensive scheme. It was a matter of execution."

Some Theismann watchers are beginning to believe he might be hurt enough about the Redskins refusing to talk about a new contract for it to become a factor in his play. He says otherwise, but a contented quarterback always plays better.

Theismann's embarrassment was all the worse because Dallas lost three defensive starters during the game: linebacker Mike Hegman, safety Mike Downs and Wilson. A pass as pivotal as any but the interceptions was Theismann's third, one that did not touch anyone.

On the Redskins' first series, with halfback Joe Washington often split wider than the wide receivers, Theismann had tight end Don Warren alone near the Dallas end zone from 36 yards away. Diving, Warren could not get to the pass.

An accurate hummer, the sort of on-the-money fast ball Theismann has shown so often in the past would have been a touchdown. And the mental uplift of that might have been telling. Instead, Warren was left with his face in the grass, and Theismann threw an interception on the next play.

Theismann's postgame mood was all the worse because his offensive line in fact did much better than anticipated. And it was working at times under the most hazardous conditions possible.

Many of the new Redskin formations called for Washington to be used as a receiver, split far from where he can be of any help as a blocker. At least twice, the Redskins had five wideouts, nobody lined in back of Theismann, nobody to cover for a missed block.

That is pressure of the worst sort. Every move is vital, every inch must be contested. And those one-on-one assignments were against a front four the equal of any.

Theismann survived, though hardly thrived.

And that is why the loss is more frustrating than sad. The assumed weaknesses in the offense did not break. The problem was a man who very likely will not repeat yesterday's sins in two months. The next defense is Giant in name only.

When this offense fails only because its most reliable man has a rare bad day at the office, there is reasonable cause for optimism. And the future for the Redskins might not be grim, but Grimm.