Mike Nelms, the Redskins' Pro Bowl kick returner, believes the National Football League needs to help punt returners by protecting them with a safe zone, similar to a Canadian Football League rule.

Nelms, who played in the CFL before joining Washington, said that would-be tacklers should be restrained from getting within five yards of the returner until he has caught the ball. As in the CFL, all fair catches would be outlawed.

"I'd even settle for four or three yards," said Nelms, who was outraged by the savage hit taken by Leon Bright, the New York Giant punt returner, during a Thanksgiving Day game against Detroit. "It's exciting but it also protects the return man. This stuff has got to stop. We're talking about a career at stake. I'm completely vulnerable, because I think I'm not protected by the current rules, which say you can't hit me until I touch the ball.

"Somebody is going to get really hurt one day out there. That's stupid. Why not do something about it now, before a tragedy?"

Philadelphia and Denver have been major disappointments this season, mainly because their defenses have deteriorated badly. The Eagles led the league last year but are last in the NFC this season; Denver, which once had the best defense in the AFC, is last in the entire league this season. These declines are more puzzling considering there has been little personnel turnover on either team . . . The Patriots are playing with six rookie defensive linemen and only one veteran, Julius Adams . . . Even with Chuck Knox's good coaching, you have to wonder about Buffalo's future this season. The Bills are 1-2 since the strike after committing a dozen turnovers in three games.

Howard Cosell calls him "Joey," but the Jets' assistant coach is the same Joe Walton who was Jack Pardee's much-criticized offensive coordinator with the Redskins. Walton always maintained that, given the correct personnel, he could call a wide-open game. He's proving that now with New York, which leads the league in total offense and rushing. Walton, who has total charge of the offense, has changed Richard Todd from an erratic quarterback to one of the steadiest performers in the league, and he's changed Lam Jones from a sprinter trying to play receiver into a legitimate NFL end.

Tampa Bay coaches maintain that Hugh Green is capable of doing everything Lawrence Taylor does with the Giants, but the Buccaneers say they benefit more when Green concentrates on covering running backs on pass plays instead of blitzing, Taylor's specialty . . . In the era of the pass, Seattle is compiling a remarkable statistic this season. The Seahawks are allowing only 106 yards a game passing; no opponent has thrown for more than 135 yards against them. NFL teams are averaging almost 200 yards a game passing this season . . . No team in the league was hurt more than Cleveland by the strike. While the Redskins avoided playing the likes of Cincinnati, San Francisco and Pittsburgh, the Browns already have played Dallas and San Diego and still must play, starting today, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Houston and Pittsburgh again . . . One reason the Los Angeles Rams may be in trouble: the depth chart included in the team's weekly release contained only 10 offensive starters.