Perhaps because he understands the fragile nature of his team so well, Coach Joe Gibbs spent yesterday trying to soft sell the Redskins' 3-0 start to his players and anyone else who would listen.

Gibbs is concerned the Redskins will start to overestimate their talents and ruin their chances for a playoff berth. As a result, he becomes even more cautious and apprehensive with each victory.

"The dangerous thing is thinking we are a 3-0 team. It's a week-to-week thing with us and that's what I'm trying to tell our players," said Gibbs.

"We aren't making any turnovers and we are making great drives at the end. We had to make two drives against Philadelphia, we had to make a great drive against Tampa, we had to make a fourth quarter drive against the Giants."

The question is how long the Redskins can keep playing this well, especially their ability to protect the football and not turn it over?

To understand Gibbs' anxiety, one need only recall last season, when Washington had lost its first five games and was leading the National Football League in turnovers.

Redskins fans were outraged about the team's start. Redskins coaches, however, were just as distressed about the mistakes. Washington was making too many errors at crucial moments to be successful.

"We've got to get the ball into the hands of people who will protect it," Gibbs said after the fifth loss, in which his team ran its turnover total to 21.

Since then, the Redskins have ranked among the league's most efficient clubs.

They have committed only 22 turnovers their last 14 games, 11 of which they've won. During their current six-game regular-season winning streak, they have lost the ball only six times, all on fumbles.

This year, while winning three in a row, they have only two turnovers, both first-half fumbles in the opener against Philadelphia. And just one of those mistakes was by the offense.

For all the reasons Gibbs gives for his team's current success, none is as important as this turnover statistic. Even an eight-week strike layoff couldn't mar Washington's efficiency Sunday against the Giants. The Redskins had no turnovers in that game, while the rest of the teams averaged more than two mistakes that afternoon.

Gibbs constantly reminds his players of one importact fact: They have not won any game the last two years in which they've committed more than two turnovers, with one exception (against Detroit last season).

A major change since early last season is that the Redskins coaching staff now knows which players are least prone to make mistakes. The five who touch the ball the most -- Joe Theismann, John Riggins, Mike Nelms, Joe Washington and Art Monk -- are remarkably sure-handed. Consider:

* Theismann has thrown 93 straight passes without an interception, dating back to the first quarter of the 1981 season finale against Los Angeles. He has fumbled only once this year, against Philadelphia in the opener.

* Riggins has 264 consecutive carries without a fumble. This season, he has 82 carries, the rest of the team has 33. Washington, who has been injured, has just one carry, but last year he lost only four fumbles in 210 carries.

* Monk, who has 84 receptions the last 19 games, has yet to lose a fumble. And Nelms, who has 105 kick returns over that same span, has given up just two fumbles.

"Joe (Theismann) has been very, very good," Gibbs said. "He's just really making smart decisions, he's not forcing the ball. In our passing attack, we kind of let the defense dictate where we are going. (Against the Giants) everything was just operating very competently. His play has added a lot to the team.

"And the kind of back John is, he's not a fumbler. He's big and strong and the ball doesn't get away from him. If he fumbled the ball next week, I wouldn't worry about it, because it would be a long time between fumbles. That's certainly made a difference.

"We try to harp on our receivers to tuck the ball away. They've sold themselves on the fact that we can't win if we turn the ball over . . . We'd get killed if we made six turnovers and the players understand that. They believe it."

The offensive efficiency could improve even more this week, if Gibbs is able to involve Washington more in the game plan for Philadelphia. Washington, who is returning from knee surgery, carried once against the Giants but Gibbs said: "I think with two or three more days practice this week, he should be okay and able to help more."

The addition of Washington should help in two ways. It will give the Redskins a back to alternate with Riggins and it will give them needed quickness, both in the backfield and as a receiver. Washington led the team in both rushing and receiving last season.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the Giants game was the fact the Redskins suffered no major injuries, contrary to what even Gibbs expected . . . "The players are sore but that's about all," Gibbs said . . .Gibbs praised the play of safeties Tony Peters and Mark Murphy.