Now that we've gone through another year of pregame, postgame and midweek interviews with Joe Theismann, let's get all the grumblings about him out on the table where we can dissect them:

"He's too slick to be real," people say.

"All gloss, no substance."

"The guy's too glib. He sounds like a politician."

"A publicity hound. He'll tell you whatever you want to hear."

Now for the equal-time provision: "The guy's beautiful," say some people in TV and radio. "He's as candid as he can be without cutting his own throat. He never makes you look bad. And he's likable. Even if you're from Podunk, he'll stand and talk to you when everybody else has gone home."

Will the real Joe Theismann please stand up?

The feeling here is that he always has.

He knows an A-1 image will sell more steaks at Joe Theismann's Restaurant in Virginia, so he won't rip Bobby Beathard. But he's also honest. He can't say no to Children's Hospital. If he's upset with Morris Siegel on Channel 7, he won't remain as a commentator on that station.

"People have accused me of being a goody two-shoes," Theismann says. "They say I answer the question too well, so I can't mean what I'm saying. That's not true. I think the toughest thing for people to accept is that's the way I am. I want to tell people the way it is. I'm not trying to b.s. 'em. But I also like to look at the positive side of things."

Theismann kept himself, most of the media and the Redskins happy this year during both seasons -- the 0-5 appetizer and the 7-3 dessert. This was no mean feat, seeing how the jackals were out for his throat 10 weeks ago. A wise man named Roger Valdiserri, sports publicist at Notre Dame, showed him how to use finesse in 1969.

"Roger would sit down with you and say, 'All right, you're going to do an interview and I want you to keep certain things in mind. Don't criticize the opponent, always praise your own teammates and never take credit yourself.' He said if you remember those three principles, you'll never turn off anybody."

There were detours along the way -- Theismann once criticized George Allen for not playing him and antagonized his teammates by spouting off every other hour to the press. But Valdiserri's guidelines eventually became the gospel according to Theismann.

"I've learned a big lesson in Washington," he says. "I used to say things to get attention, only to have them come back in my face like a cannon. You've got to let the brain think a bit before you open your mouth up."

And so the one-time babbler became perhaps the slickest handler of interviews in the NFL. Make no mistake: he knows exactly what he's saying. He tells people what he wants them to hear, not what they want to hear. But they get their quotes or 20 seconds of tape. It's a perfect marriage. Everyone comes away happy.

Take Theismann's performance -- tour de force might be a better term -- after the Redskins-Colts game Sunday. It was his last home game of the year, and perhaps the last of his career in Washington if Jack Kent Cooke can't sign him. The tape recorder crowd was panting for a nice ripper quote.

Theismann handled the questions with a subtle touch, prodding the Redskins gently. "Sometimes we need a pat on the head, and one way of saying 'nice job' is for them to give you a contract . . . We've come together as a unit and built a real closeness here. I hope it will stay."

His mission accomplished, Theismann launched into a floating 50-minute session with two or three waves of reporters. On the agenda for discussion:

His last game at RFK. How physical pain can keep a player's mind from wandering. Baltimore's talented offense. The talented Mike Nelms. Joe Gibbs' game plan. What effect the weather had compared to the week before. What he tells Art Monk in the huddle. More Mike Nelms. The Redskins' about-face. Joe Gibbs' happiness. Coach Joe Bugel and the offensive linemen ("Big dog and his puppies"). Still more Mike Nelms. His own touchdown off a draw play suggested by center Jeff Bostic.

The Bostic story was pure art. Theismann told it just a bit differently for each guy who wandered by with a camera.

For Scott Clark of Channel 4, Theismann crossed his wrists to show how the Colt tacklers were stunting just before the touchdown run. For Frank Herzog of Channel 9, he joked that the Redskins needed a play so badly, "We were ready to poll people from the stands." For Bob McLain of Channel 7, he described it as a schoolyard play drawn in the dirt with sticks and bottle caps.

By no coincidence, the story sounded fresh each time it came out of Theismann's mouth. Each response lasted only 20 seconds. Joe will talk for hours, but only a half-minute per subject. This makes it easier for the tape to be edited and for him to get on the air.

Here's the all-time Joe Theismann media anecdote: Up in Carlisle this summer, nobody wanted to interview Theismann when he came off the field. So he just picked up the tape recorder of Channel 7's Tim Brant and had Theismann interview Theismann.

"You want people to enjoy your show, quote unquote," Theismann says. "I said a long time ago I'm an entertainer."

I find it more than a little ironic that Theismann can be criticized for talking too much or too smoothly in an age when dozens of his peers won't even talk at all. Wherever he lands next year, he'll put on a first-rate show.