This is a fragile 1982 Redskin team, with many ifs and unknowns that will make the difference between a playoff spot or another season of mediocrity.

The most mystifying unknown is the reason for last season's 8-3 finish. Was that an indication of a maturing team finally playing up to its ability? Or was it a misleading record accomplished by players under little pressure who knew their realistic playoff chances had disappeared after an 0-5 start?

The most puzzling "if" is a defense that could prove the sum may be greater than its parts. The unit must stay relatively injury free so its thin talent will not be overextended covering up for a questionable front four.

This much seems certain: Barring the loss of a key player for an extended period, the Redskins are better now than they were at the end of last season. The maturity of young players and the addition of a few strong draft choices from the last two years have increased depth. The offensive line is no longer inexperienced. Quarterback Joe Theismann is more comfortable with Joe Gibbs' offense. There are more linebackers of proven quality.

This much also seems certain: The schedule is difficult. The NFC East is probably the most difficult division in either conference. And the Redskins' overall team quickness, especially on defense, is a major problem.

The Redskins are truly symbolic of this era of NFL parity. Judged against standards applied to playoff-caliber teams of a decade ago, Washington would appear to be outmanned. Considering today's pro football equality, the Redskins have just enough adequate players and coaching to be considered a playoff possibility.

If Theismann has the best year of his roller-coaster career, he probably could ensure a winning season, just as Brian Sipe did in Cleveland in 1980. Likewise, if defensive end Dexter Manley became the pass rusher of his coaches' dreams, he could transform a passive defensive line into a much more competitive unit.

If either Theismann, Mike Nelms or Art Monk is injured, the Redskins would be in trouble. No other quarterback on the roster has enough experience to replace Theismann (backup Tom Owen has hardly played during his eight-year career); Nelms is the NFC's best kick returner and Monk remains far superior to any other receiver on the team.

The team will discover just how valuable Joe Washington is during the next few weeks, when he is hobbling from a knee injury. No one else on the roster has his quickness.

"We just don't have the kind of depth or talent to absorb a lot of bruises or a lot of mistakes," said Gibbs. "I feel we will be able to stay with the best teams, but it's hard to say how much toll our schedule will take on us."

The Redskins did little in the offseason to improve. Their biggest disappointments were their failure to sign free agents Renaldo (Skeets) Nehemiah or Bruce Clark. They also were without a No. 1 pick.

Even so, the Redskins rarely have had so many good young prospects. Cornerback Vernon Dean (No. 2) will give immediate aid, either as a nickel back or as an early-down replacement for Joe Lavender. Tight end Mike Williams (No. 5) could play considerably in a two tight-end formation. Linebacker Larry Kubin, receiver Charlie Brown and tight end Clint Didier, all 1981 picks, could play important roles as the season progresses.

With the possible exception of Todd Liebenstein (No. 4), the defensive line will have the same players who provided little pass rush and limited resistance against the run. Ends Mat Mendenhall and Manley were inexperienced last year, but their ordeal may pay off this season. If not, opponents once again will run almost at will to the outside.

Tackle Dave Butz presents a barrier to inside penetration, but is not a great pass rusher. Tackle Perry Brooks still has not played to his potential. Behind them is converted offensive guard Darryl Grant, who isn't ready to play full-time.

Unless Monte Coleman finally blossoms, the Redskins lack a full-time, all-purpose linebacker. But Richie Petitbon, the defensive coordinator, has enough depth to juggle players into various roles at this position. Middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz is steady, Rich Milot and Coleman cover pass receivers well and Kubin may develop into a blitzing specialist.

Even without Lemar Parrish, once a premier man-to-man cornerback, the secondary plays so well together that the Redskins shouldn't show a drop-off in pass defense. Petitbon has asked his backs to become much more aggressive and active, keyed by improvement from safeties Tony Peters and Mark Murphy. Foes likely will try to isolate cornerback Jeris White, not known for his quickness.

"We won't be a dominant defense," Petitbon said, "but if we can stay healthy, we'll use a lot of role players who should be able to create situations where we get turnovers and hold our own."

The defense, 10th last year in the league despite the problems at end, also would benefit from an efficient offense that keeps mistakes to a minimum. When the Redskins were careless offensively in 1981, they lost. When they were conservative and careful, they won.

Theismann says he feels more comfortable with Gibbs' "thinking-man's" offense. He's safest handing off to a group of running backs that also includes John Riggins and Wilbur Jackson, both of whom had fine training camps. There's slightly more risk passing to Monk and an improved supporting cast, including Brown, Virgil Seay and Alvin Garrett. Brown could become a standout -- good news for the usually doubled-teamed Monk.

Progress at the tight end spot depends on the continued development of Williams and Didier and possible help from veteran Rich Caster. They all add much-needed speed and receiving ability to complement starter Don Warren, a relentless blocker and clutch pass catcher.

A year after being a major weakness, the offensive line now is an acknowledged strength, especially if 285-pound guard Mark May does well after a switch from tackle. Guard Russ Grimm has all-Pro ability, tackle George Starke is playing the best of his career and former free agents Joe Jacoby (295 pounds and growing) and Jeff Bostic have been outstanding this summer. There is even sufficient depth now, supplied by guards Fred Dean and Melvin Jones and tackle Don Laster, a surprising 12th-round pick.

Nelms' exciting kick returning adds a special dimension to the offense, and rookie Jeff Hayes' high kicks should upgrade the punting.

"I feel better about this team than any other since I've been here," said General Manager Bobby Beathard. "Sometimes you can't explain why you think something good will happen, but you just believe it. And I believe that about this team."