Joe Washington is a hummer. He hums in the shower, he hums in the Redskin locker room, he hums while watching television. He probably hums in his sleep, although he doesn't know that for sure.

It is a low, monotonous hum that sounds like a bee singing baritone. "It's no special tune," he said. "You have to be on a certain wavelength, I guess, to catch it."

The Redskins already are on that wavelength. The better Washington has played this season -- and he is playing superbly -- the more humming you hear at Redskin Park.

Example: reserve linebacker Pete Cronan was shagging passes after practice the other day. He caught one for a touchdown, then turned and walked proudly back to midfield, humming all the way.

"It's funny," said Washington, "but wherever I've gone, they've made fun of my humming. But after a while, I hear everyone else humming, too."

From high school in Texas to the University of Oklahoma to the San Diego Chargers, Baltimore Colts and, now, the Redskins, his hum has become sweet music to his teammates and coaches.

"He gets everyone behind him quickly," said Tony Peters, the Redskin strong safety who was a teammate of Washington's at Oklahoma. "He is real easy to get along with in the locker room and how can you help not like him on the field?

"When you see a little guy play that well and do the things he does, it gives everyone else a sense of accomplishment, too. You set your goals higher because you see this small guy who is turning everyone else every which way. It gives you inspiration."

Washington is a little man -- 5 feet 10 and 180 pounds -- accomplishing big things in a large man's game. He has added quickness this season to an offense that had been most notable recently for its lack of speed. And he has done it with a flair that has made him a growing favorite with fans at RFK Stadium.

Despite missing almost three games, he is second on the team in rushing with 343 yards on 85 carries (John Riggins has 418 yards) and first in receiving with 38 catches for 305 yards.

During his absence with an ankle sprain, the Redskins lost all three games in the midst of an 0-5 start. Since his return for the fifth week, the team has won three of its last five games, he has gained all but 49 of his rushing yards (without fumbling) and has caught 20 of his 38 passes. Just as important, he has provided the outside speed needed to complement Riggins' inside runs.

"I see him every day in practice and I can't believe the things he can do. How could Baltimore ever let him go?" linebacker Rich Milot said. "But what makes him so enjoyable, I think, is that he is both good and humble. You can't help but like him, because he never brags about what he does. Everyone on this team appreciates that. He just does his job and keeps everyone excited."

In this year of transition for the Redskins, Washington has generated excitement with a simple five-yard pass reception over the middle.

"He's at the right place at the right time," said Bobby Beathard, who obtained Washington from Baltimore last April for a No. 2 draft choice, the best deal he has made as Redskin general manager. "Our offense needed exactly what he can provide, quickness. And Joe Gibbs is an ideal coach for him. Gibbs doesn't misuse a player. He doesn't ask him to do something he can't. Joe Washington could last for years playing in Gibbs' offense.

"We've very happy with him. He's been an absolute delight, but we were sure he would be."

This also may be the happiest Washington has been since he was drafted by the Chargers six years ago. He was the fourth player chosen, after Lee Roy Selmon, Steve Niehaus and Chuck Muncie.

Off the field, it is not Washington's nature to become too excited about anything. But for the first time in his pro career, he admits he is content, for now, with his role and his salary.

"I've been happy with the reception I've received here and by the way I've been treated," he said. "You're never completely satisfied with everything; I think that's impossible. And it's not that I wasn't happy at times where I've been before. But I like the way things are going here."

Washington has learned the hard way about being cautious. Every other time he felt he was in the ideal situation as a pro, he found out he was wrong. He doesn't want to make the same mistake again.

In San Diego, he was welcomed, as he put it, "as the savior of the franchise." He agreed to a five-year (plus an option year) contract totaling more than $400,000, which did not reflect his high draft position. After ripping up a knee in a preseason game his rookie year, then refusing to play later when the knee still didn't feel right, he says his problems were described as "psychosomatic" in the press.

"They didn't think I was hurt anymore," he said. "But I went to my own doctor in Oklahoma and, sure enough, I needed another operation. I grew up a lot that year. It was never the same there for me."

After the 1977 season, when he was used mostly as a third-down back, he asked to be traded. "They had gone sour on me and I knew I wasn't going to be used very much as long as Tommy Prothro was coach," he said. The Chargers weren't anxious to accommodate him until late August 1978. Baltimore was willing to deal off the bigger, more experienced Lydell Mitchell, who was having a contract dispute with the Colts.

Washington thought Baltimore would be his salvation, especially when the team approached him after the trade about renegotiating his original contract. Instead, he grew steadily more unhappy when the contract talks never were completed successfully.

"They dragged the talks on for 2 1/2 years," said Washington, who talks reluctantly about the episode. "They'd say one thing and come up with another. One time, they wanted to spread deferred payments over 15 years. Oh, my goodness, I'm more of a businessman than to agree to that. I finally went to them the third game of last year and told them I wanted out."

Ernie Accorsi, the Colts' assistant general manager, said the team was convinced Washington was upset more about sharing his halfback duties with No. 1 choice Curtis Dickey than about any financial problems.

"In our minds, the contract wasn't the main issue," Accorsi said. "(Coach) Mike McCormack was convinced he was unhappy over his playing situation and wanted out. We talked to him for two years about a contract and we were going to do something for him; it was going to be worked out without any problems. If he was that upset about the contract, we never realized it.

"Heck, we didn't want to lose him. He was our best player for two years . . . But for the right price, we decided to agree to Joe's wishes."

Washington, who hired agent Mike Trope after releasing his first representative, says he could have lived with the Dickey situation. "I'm not dumb; they aren't going to bring in a No. 1 and put him on the bench." But after leading the team in rushing for two years (956 and 884 yards) and leading the league in pass receiving in 1979 (82 catches), he thought he deserved a better contract.

His San Diego contract, which included a $130,000 bonus deferred over six years, paid him only $75,000 in 1980. Colt sources said the team was willing to more than double his salary for this season, but Washington was so upset over the negotiation process, he refused to agree to final terms as a matter of principle, and stood by his trade-me demands.

After being traded to the Redskins, he quickly signed a new five-year contract that pays him $175,000 a year, plus deferred money.

Washington seems like the last person who would be involved in front-office debates. He is low-key by nature; a quiet, pleasant, friendly man who calls himself "really lazy." He likes to watch television, play solitaire, backgammon and arcade electronic games and go to the theater, particularly musicals. But he also says: "I'm willing to take a stand when I think I'm right."

The son of a high school football coach in Port Arthur, Tex., he can remember attending football clinics with his father at a very young age. "He's really football smart," said Peters, "and I think his background is the reason. He just knows the intricacies of the game. He gets isolated on a linebacker and he just knows how to shake him. Football has been his life."

The clinics also may be responsible for his humming. He says he would ride along with his father imitating race car announcers -- and the race cars. "My mother used to rock me by humming when I was a little kid. That rubbed off, too. I do know the humming annoys people. After two straight hours, my wife can't even stand it. But it soothes and relaxes me. I just like it."

After a legendary high school career playing for his father, he decided to attend Oklahoma, in part because of his family's friendship with the assistant coach who headed the recruiting effort.

Oklahoma had an 11-1 record his senior year; he hasn't played on a winning team since.

"I've never grown used to losing, goodness no," he said. "But football still is fun. I can get excited whenever we do anything right because I know how much effort went into it, the time that was spent in practice to perfect it. People forget that it isn't as easy as it looks."

And what about the excitement he is generating this season in Washington?

"Well, I think it has something to do with my name. It seems to fit right in with the town, don't you believe?" said Joe Washington.