It had become a Sunday night ritual for Joe Gibbs. The Redskins' coach would get home after another defeat, toss and turn in bed for a few hours, give up on sleep and head for Redskin Park to begin looking at film.

Joe Theismann, his quarterback, would talk to his wife Cheryl, trying to analyze what was wrong with the team and with his play.

Mark May, the No. 1 draft pick, stopped going to restaurants. "I got tired of hearing people say, 'There's one of the Deadskins,' " he said. "I ate a lot of frozen pizzas for a few weeks."

Mark Murphy didn't want to face the children in his neighborhood, or the dogs. "The kids made fun of me and the dogs barked at me," he said. "Now, the kids want to play catch and the dogs show me all their tricks."

The Redskins were 0-5 and life in Washington had become a series of safety blitzes: they always had to be looking over their shoulders to see what was going to hit them next.

Today, the Redskins are 3-6. No one is talking about going to the Super Bowl. In fact, given that the three victories are over teams with a combined 7-20 record, no one is discussing much of anything, except trying to beat another losing team, the Detroit Lions (4-5), this Sunday at RFK Stadium.

But the atmosphere at Redskin Park this week is much warmer compared with that of four weeks ago when people were saying that Gibbs might not survive his first season as coach.

"It was about the worst situation in the world," Gibbs said. "Your job is to win games and you're losing. I felt like a guy who is part of a business that's going bankrupt and it was my fault.

"What got me through it was feeling that we were doing a lot of things right. You have to reevaluate in that situation, but you also have to believe in what you're doing.

"We could do that because we could see some things we were doing right. We were strong statistically, we were just killing ourselves with the mistakes. It was depressing, though. I'm usually good at leaving work behind when I go home, but I couldn't get away from this one."

Fortunately for Gibbs, Jack Kent Cooke, the team's owner, and Bobby Beathard, the general manager who hired him, didn't panic. In fact, Beathard said, he never had second thoughts about his choice of coaches.

"If it had looked to me like the team wasn't working hard or making an effort, maybe I would have felt different," Beathard said. "But the effort was always there. It would have been easy to throw in the towel after (the loss to) San Francisco but no one did. The players still had faith in themselves and you have to give Joe credit for that.

"I never second-guessed hiring him. I was encouraged by our preseason and I knew going in it was going to be pretty tough. Then the injuries really compounded the problem. I think Dallas or Philadelphia would have had trouble winning if they had injuries like we did.

"More than anything, I felt sorry for Joe and the players."

The quarterback is the most visible player, and with that goes the burden of being the first to get booed when things go badly. And, when Gibbs yanked Theismann in the third quarter of the San Francisco game, loss No. 5, Theismann was visibly angered.

"I tried to be objective about it," he said. "I analyzed my play and decided I didn't play very well but I wasn't all that rotten, either. It's times like that I'm glad I'm not a bachelor. I was able to go home and play with my kids or go to a movie with my wife, at least get away from it a little. If you're a bachelor and you go home to an empty apartment, you can find yourself talking to the walls after a while."

It wasn't that easy for Gibbs. He had come here hailed as the innovator, the bright young mind behind the San Diego Chargers' wide open offense. Gibbs was keenly aware of the special pressures of coaching in Washington, where the Redskins are conversation starters at parties 12 months a year.

"Being 0-5 was certainly a low ebb, but coming in new to a town with the kind of tradition this one has made it even tougher," Gibbs said. "I always try to think that things work out for the best and that may happen here. I think we're better off having been through this. The guys know what 0-5 feels like and they don't ever want to have that feeling again."

Joe Washington, the classy halfback who has been one of the bright spots throughout the season, had lived through awful starts before, in Baltimore. This time, he said, was different. "The thing that surprised me was that there wasn't any finger pointing going on," he said. "That's the way it had always been in the past. But here, everybody just kept working.

"We're all smart enough to know we haven't got it turned around yet, but at least we seem to be headed in the right direction now."

"Everyone's just a little looser, a little more confident and a little more enthusiastic now," May said. "Those little things during the week can make a big difference Sunday. Before, practices were pretty dismal. Now, they're still hard, but everybody feels a lot better about them."

Now, smiling is allowed. So is joking. Yesterday, when Mike Nelms walked away from his helmet, punter Mike Connell hid it behind a yard marker.

Mark Moseley's hip and groin still are sore and he will not kick in practice this week. He said he expects to be able to kick Sunday.. Adding to the problem: Connell, who kicked off for Moseley for two weeks, complained of soreness in his leg after doing so . . . Guard Melvin Jones practiced and expects to be able to play against the Lions after missing three games . . . Mel Kaufman, after two interceptions against the Cardinals, worked with the first defensive unit . . . Lemar Parrish, his knee still bothering him, watched most of the workout but is expected to play Sunday.