Like husbands, coaches are the last to know.

"It's frustrating to stand on the sideline and see that happening to you and be helpless," Redskin Coach Joe Gibbs said. "No one says anything to you. The game just proceeds."

Few games ever proceeded quite like the Redskins-Bills here today. Mostly, there is solid evidence, a number here and there, to verify what the eyes behold. Not today. This was the most impression-filled affair in memory, for, although the Redskins never seemed quite good enough to win, the Bills played fitfully enough to lose.

Especially, the officials appeared awful. Referee Ben Dreith seemed indecisive, a man whose mind surely was a revolving door this game. Thoughts must have played bump and run up there, colliding at full speed, stumbling into each other, causing game-long confusion and delay.

And frustration for Gibbs. Poor fellow. Cold and upset over the bumblings of his own team, the coach seemed as dizzy as most fans over the zebra zaniness. Nobody told him nothin'.

NFL officials usually give the impression they are competent and in command. These guys once threw three flags and called no penalty. Another time nobody threw a flag and a game-turning penalty was assessed against Washington. The ball was mismarked a time or so.

In truth, though, the officials probably were right nearly every time. First impressions very often are wrong and the Redskins actually have very little to growl over; they sinned far more than the officials.

The one legitimate gripe, it appears here, was the no-interference call on the Mike Nelms punt muff. All that did was set up a short drive for the winning touchdown. Such was the Redskin fate. They were a half-yard short or a step slow at all the critical times. Or got jailed at the most agonizing moments.

If the officials told Gibbs nothin', his players didn't show him much.

Coaches call 'em as they see 'em, and their prejudiced sight sometimes is misleading. They insisted at least one Bill, and perhaps a herd of them, bumped Nelms in a way that kept him from a fair chance to catch that third-quarter punt.

"He got grabbed," an assistant coach said.

"Pushed all over the place," said a player.

"Didn't hit me," said Nelms.


"But he was so close I decided not to catch it," he added. "I thought he was gonna run into me, so I let it alone. I don't see how he didn't hit me." Being buffaloed by a man who, to reasonable persons, should not have been allowed there, Nelms got in the way of the bouncing ball. The Bills smothered it.

NFL players do not have the right of free speech, but they do have the right to a clear path to a punt.

Still, the more the Redskins fuss over that business of Joe Theismann not being allowed back into the game after a knee to the helmet left him momentarily groggy, the more they will realize a less-caring crew would have been to their benefit.

They needed stone-headed bulls out there who would not admit a mistake until snowballs get tossed around in hell. Lots of officials are like that. This outfit admitted a mistake, listened to the Bills and corrected it. To anyone whose livelihood does not hang on a Redskin paycheck, it seemed a nice, human touch.

Gibbs said an official indicated to his assistants that it was okay for Theismann to replace Tom Flick after the Redskins were called for a "false start" on that rookie quarterback's hasty appearance. On third and 27, the Redskins got what seemed their one lucky bounce of the game, a makeup for the one that allowed the ball to somehow clank off Virgil Seay's hands and into Mario Clark's in the second quarter. That set up the Bills' second touchdown.

When Theismann let fire on his return, emotions started on a wild roller coaster ride. Buffalo got excited when the ball bounced off Don Warren's hands; Washington got joyous when it landed in Seay's hands and he squirmed yards past the first-down marker.

No flags.

Much talk.

Later, Dreith said one of his geniuses had spotted the infraction all along, and would have nullified the completion without any coaxing from Bills' Assistant Tom Catlin. Hmmmmm.

"I reminded them pretty strongly," Catlin said. "They didn't notice it."

"Ben Dreith was willing to listen," said Buffalo Coach Chuck Knox. "It was a big play for us, but that's the rule."

Gibbs said an official nodded to his assistants that Theismann's return was permissible.

"I asked him (the official) going by," said Assistant Wayne Sevier, "and he didn't say anything. He ignored me. He didn't say no." So the Redskins assumed that meant yes.

Later, according to Sevier, the official said if the penalty had been anything but a false start Theismann could have returned without penalty. But a false start, a botched-up exchange both Flick and center Jeff Bostic admitted was a penalty, means no play was started. And an injured player cannot return until one play has been completed.

Instead of first down at the Buffalo 36, the Redskins had third and 32 from their 27. And Flick flicked off his gloves, discarded his clipboard momentarily, trotted back for the play he had to endure, and couldn't get out of Joe Washington's way on a handoff that gained several feet.

"Tough," Washington said later. "T-U-F-F."

Gibbs said no flag should mean no penalty, regardless of whether one should be called.

The Redskins said Dreith and his crew have a history of being indecisive.

Like so much of what happened this freezing afternoon, it all depends on whose eyes saw what.