"The Redskins are the best team in the National Football Conference." -- Jack Pardee, Dec. 17, 1979

"Sometimes when you want to get better, you have to suffer some lumps." -- Bobby Beathard, Sept. 29, 1981

Twenty-one months after they came within 39 seconds of defeating Dallas for the NFC East championship, the Redskins are in the midst of a massive rebuilding program that has dragged them to the bottom of the division standings.

They have gone from one of the league's oldest teams to one of its youngest. Instead of one of the league's most conservative coaches, they have one of its most innovative. And instead of dreaming of the Super Bowl, they are dreaming of their first victory in a season already four weeks old.

The fall of the Redskins cost Jack Pardee his job as coach and eventually could jeopardize Beathard's position as general manager if things don't improve as he predicts. It has returned the Redskins to the pre-George Allen era, in which fans for years were asked by management to be patient, with the promise of improvement.

"That's what I feel worst about," said Beathard before leaving on a scouting trip. "The fans deserve a good team. No other city gets support like we do. We want to give them a good team. But it takes time."

Beathard's determination that the 1979 season -- which ended with that 35-34 loss to the Cowboys Dec. 16 -- was a fluke, that the Redskins had become too old, too slow and too lacking in talent, is the starting point in any examination of the franchise's decline over those 21 months.

On the basis of that decision, he has restructured a near-playoff team, replacing 26 of the 45 players who suited up against Dallas on that December afternoon. But he says he finally has devised a master rebuilding plan for the Redskins instead of relying on what he calls "the patch-and-fill method we were using."

"We were fooling ourselves if we thought we could stay on top that way," he said. "I know how Jack felt, but too many players were getting too old and we didn't have enough young players to fill in the holes. Look what happened to Pittsburgh the last two years. You get to a point and things just fall apart.

"You have to be realistic about it, even if the picture you see isn't the best. We could have stayed 8-8 forever doing it the other way, but that's not what I wanted. If we were ever going to get much better, as good as the best in the league, we had to pull back and make changes.

"Jack and I just didn't agree on how things should be changed. There were a lot of things I wanted to do differently from 1978 through 1980 but didn't. Now we are going about this the way it should be done."

It apparently could take more time than Beathard has expected.

When Washington broke training camp in late August, Beathard and Coach Joe Gibbs were convinced the Redskins were good enough to avoid a prolonged losing period despite major personnel changes (22 new players on a 45-man roster).

"I didn't think it would take this long (to win a game)," said Gibbs, whose team is off to its worst start in 16 years. "But I'm still convinced we are much better than our record shows. We are going to win games this season.

"Part of our problem might have been that we were trying to evaluate a lot of personnel while also trying to learn all of their strengths and weaknesses. In the future, we'll have less roster changes and that will let us concentrate more on getting to know each player better."

Said Beathard: "The one thing we knew we couldn't have was injuries and now we can't seem to avoid them. We still really haven't seen what this team can do at full strength. We haven't dropped down as far as it may seem. I think once we get all our starters back, we'll take off."

Seven of the 22 Redskins who started the opener against Dallas have since missed at least one game. Potential starters Brad Dusek and Fred Dean have yet to be activated because of injuries. Since training camp, the Redskins have used six players at left guard and have seen three of their top four linebackers sidelined. And their three best running backs have been held out because of leg problems.

But until the team begins winning consistently, Beathard, Gibbs and owner Jack Kent Cooke are feeling unexpected pressure. Cooke, who gave the go-ahead for the rebuilding plans in January by firing Pardee and retaining Beathard, has been "very supportive" during the last month, according to his general manager.

Cooke was reluctant to talk about his team, but he did say he was not getting impatient with its progress.

"My patience will not be tried," he said, "and I hope that that represents the feelings of the Washington fans."

Pardee long has blamed the Redskins' downfall on Cooke's intervention in his working arrangement with Beathard. Pardee believed that if Cooke had stayed the silent owner and kept Beathard in the background, functioning more as a super scout than general manager, the Redskins could have been restored as a playoff contender without a major roster upheaval.

Even after a 6-10 1980 season, Pardee felt the team lacked only three pivotal players to become a winner again: a young, talented offensive lineman, a pass-rushing defensive lineman and a quick running back.

Beathard disagreed and, with Cooke's blessing, made the decision to restructure the team. Cooke wanted a franchise with the consistent winning power of Dallas. Beathard believed the only way to achieve that goal was massive player changes.

"Even when we were so good in 1979, I was convinced that we had long-term problems," Beathard said. "We were one of the best teams in the NFC that year. But I just didn't think that we had the personnel to stay on top for long."

The Redskins are hardly the first NFL franchise to undergo a transition period. Philadelphia, Dallas, Atlanta, Pittsburgh, San Diego and Miami all went through painful processes, relying heavily on the draft to turn around losing records.

Mavericks such as Allen and Al Davis, Oakland's managing general partner, think the losing part can be avoided. They are convinced, as is Pardee, that a team can be good while it is being rebuilt. Allen's future-is-now approach with the Redskins and Davis' extended success with the Raiders reinforce their beliefs.

"Sure, we could have picked up people that might have lasted a half-season, the kind of deals George made," Beathard said. "We could get rid of all of our draft choices like he did. But, eventually it's going to catch up to you, just like it did with us.

"We now are going to rely on the draft for most of what we do. We are going to really guard our high draft choices. If a great deal comes up, we'll be interested, but it has to be a great one. We aren't going to panic."

Previously, Beathard has not guarded his best picks so zealously. In his first four years as general manager, he has made 35 trades, including dealing off his No. 1 selections in 1978 and 1982 and other high choices. He lacks his fifth, eighth, 11th and 12th picks in the 1982 draft.

But he says the 1981 draft, in which the Redskins selected 12 players and acquired halfback Joe Washington by trading their No. 2 pick to Baltimore, is an example of the team's future tactics. Washington hadn't had that many choices in any draft since the 1960s.

"I usually say that you need two or three years to evaluate a draft, but this one is already a good one in my mind," he said. "Mark May and Russ Grimm are starters, Dexter Manley and Tom Flick are going to really help us in the future, Larry Kubin could be a great linebacker, Darryl Grant has really improved and we have hopes for Phil Kessell and Clint Didier. And I'd trade a second-round choice any day for a Joe Washington."

The Redskins still are probably two drafts away from filling in their most obvious gaps. They need help at receiver, the defensive line and the secondary. Still, Beathard maintains this is a "better team, with better players" than the one that faced Dallas in 1979.

"The offensive and defensive lines were both too old," he said. "We didn't have a foundation on which to build. The lines are your foundation. We had too many marginal players and too many at the ends of their career. I thought we lacked team speed and strength. Everywhere you looked, there were things that needed to be fixed."

Of the 26 players gone from the 1979 roster, only Dallas Hickman (Baltimore) and Jeff Williams (San Diego) remain in the NFL. Some, such as Ted Fritsch, were given tryouts but were not signed by other teams. Others, such as Mike Bragg, caught on for a season. Most, however, retired without any nibbles.

That 1979 roster had 14 players who were 30 or older and seven with 10 or more years experience. And that doesn't include safety Ken Houston, who was inactive because of a broken arm.

Much of that age and experience was on the two lines. Terry Hermeling (33), George Starke (31) and Ron Saul (31) were offensive line starters and Coy Bacon (36), Diron Talbert (35) and Paul Smith (34) were key defensive line members. Six other players over 30 also were starters, but only five players under 26 were first-stringers. And the only rookies on the squad were Neal Olkewicz, Monte Coleman, Rich Milot, Ray Waddy, Don Warren and Phil DuBois.

Fullback John Riggins enjoyed his best pro season that year, but halfback Benny Malone was ineffective. Ricky Thompson was the only reliable receiver and the reserve offensive personnel were, on the whole, lackluster.

Of the 25 offensive players on that squad, nine are left, including Fred Dean, who is on the injured-reserve list. Quarterback Joe Theismann, Thompson, Starke and Warren still are starting, but Riggins had lost his spot to Wilbur Jackson before last week's game against Philadelphia.

The offensive line that Gibbs would start now if everyone were healthy includes Starke, Mark May (21), Melvin Jones (25), Russ Grimm (22) and Jeff Bostic (23). May was the team's 198l No. 1 pick; Grimm was No. 3.

"This is going to be a terrific offensive line," Beathard said. "We've got good draft choices in there (May, Grimm, Jones) and you can see it getting better in the future. The other line had already played its best football."

Yet Beathard and Gibbs also gave up on Williams, the Redskins' best young offensive lineman last season, trading him to the Chargers for Wilbur Young before training camp.

Art Monk (No. 1, 1980) and Virgil Seay have replaced Danny Buggs and John McDaniel as receivers. Running backs Benny Malone, Ike Forte and Bobby Hammond lost their spots to Joe Washington, Terry Metcalf and Otis Wonsley.

Mark Moseley remains the place-kicker, but Mike Connell does the punting now instead of Mike Bragg and Bostic is the long snapper instead of Fritsch, who lost his touch at the beginning of last season.

There have been fewer changes defensively. Bacon, Smith and Talbert are gone from the front four and linebacker Pete Wysocki has retired. Otherwise, the secondary remains unchanged, four of the top five linebackers still are on the roster and both tackle Dave Butz and end Karl Lorch continue as starters.

End Mat Mendenhall (24) and tackle Perry Brooks (26) have earned first-string roles this season. Linebackers Coleman (23), Olkewicz (24) and Milot (24) began the season as starters and both safeties, Mark Murphy (26) and Tony Peters (28), are relatively young.

The current Redskin roster has only four players with at least 10 years experience and 12 who are 30 or older. Lemar Parrish, Starke, Saul and Moseley are the elder statesmen at 33.

There also are 27 players under age 27 and 13 players with rookie experience. Of those 27, 11 are starters.

"I said last December that it would take three years for us to become a consistent playoff team and I still feel that way," Beathard said. "That doesn't mean we are going to be a bad team until then . . . Joe Gibbs is an excellent coach and he's headed in the right direction. I'm disappointed in our start, but not in what we've done."

Cooke has made a detailed study of Dallas and Philadelphia. He is well aware it took Tom Landry seven years to produce a winning team with the expansion Cowboys and Dick Vermeil needed three years to get the Eagles above .500. Beathard and Gibbs began this season with three-year contracts.

"I don't feel any pressure to be an instant miracle worker," Beathard said. "We've made a commitment and now we have to live with it. If we are patient enough, I think everyone will be pleased with the ultimate results."