Did the Redskins botch it by playing Art Monk in a virtually meaningless game when they knew he had a stress fracture in his right foot? Did they take an unnecessary risk? Shouldn't they have let him rest Sunday and then gamble with the aching foot in the first playoff game?

Now, the Redskins' best receiver and cornerstone of a complex offensive system is unlikely to play in any playoff game at all. Instead, the Redskins used Monk on a bad foot against St. Louis when it mattered little if they won or lost the game. Winning gave them a home-field advantage in every playoff game; if they lost, they still would play all playoff games at home unless they met the Cowboys.

Coach Joe Gibbs said the Redskins decided to play Monk because the team doctor, Stan Lavine, said there was little chance Monk could hurt the foot seriously. Gibbs said Lavine suggested the stress fracture, first revealed in X-rays Friday, might have been three weeks old. During that time, Monk didn't miss a day's work.

But if an X-ray on Friday shows a stress fracture, isn't there a chance that fracture will get worse?

"Dr. Lavine said very seldom does it happen," Gibbs said yesterday after practice.

Yesterday morning, Lavine said of Monk's original stress fracture, "You can't do more damage by playing on it."

Apparently, though, that is what happened.

Gibbs saw the Friday X-rays and the pictures late Sunday. "It was a little nick Friday," he said. "Now it's cracked all the way through."

From a cold-hearted realist's viewpoint, which is often the viewpoint of football coaching staffs, it could be theorized that the Redskins might have played Monk on Sunday because they'd rather have the foot get broken then than in the middle of a playoff game.

The theory is that if Monk goes down against St. Louis on the sixth play of a meaningless game (as he did), the coaching staff has time to put together a new game plan for the playoffs starting Saturday.

But if Monk goes down early in a playoff game, there is hell to pay. Suddenly, three or four receivers are in positions at which they haven't practiced for maybe a month.

"I didn't want him to get hurt anytime," Gibbs said in response. "He'd been playing maybe two weeks with it, the same as Russ Grimm has (with two stress fractures in his lower left leg). The odds of anything worse happening were so low we didn't even consider it. A stress fracture -- that's like shin splints. We rest 'em and play 'em."

In any event, it was Monk's decision to play. The options were spelled out by Lavine on Saturday: a cast immediately, with three-to-six weeks healing time; or play in however much pain you can stand. Monk decided that the pain, already two weeks old, wasn't so severe he should miss a game in which victory would give the Redskins the best regular-season record in the National Conference.

Any discussion of why Monk played with a stress fracture must begin with an understanding that pain is part of the job. "Muscle tears, sprains, strains, bruises -- those are hangnails," Merlin Olsen once said. "Broken bones, those are injuries."

Then there is the distinction between broken bones and stress fractures. Broken bones are cracked in two, the way you crack an egg shell apart against the skillet's edge. Stress fractures are hair-like lines in the bone, as if you tapped the egg only lightly.

Broken bones stop everybody, because the nerves, muscles and circulatory system go on screaming strike until repairs are made. With the "hangnail" of a stress fracture, anybody can play if the pain is tolerable.

That's what Monk did. He might already have played two games with it. A stress fracture can become a broken bone, but, according to Gibbs, Lavine said, "It very seldom happens."

After Monk worked out Saturday and warmed up Sunday at RFK, he decided to play in pain.

He lasted only six offensive plays when, running a pattern that called for him to cut over the middle, Monk felt "a little pop" when he planted the right foot to make his cut.

The stress fracture had become, by Gibbs' description, a broken bone.

"If you extend the crack of a stress fracture, it hurts like hell," said Dr. Gabe Mirkin, a sports medicine specialist in Silver Spring. "I probably would have let Monk play, with special inserts and cushions and stiff soles to protect his foot. With a stress fracture, extending it is a chance you take. What the Redskins did was perfectly good medicine."

It also was, whether a layman can appreciate it or not, perfectly typical of football, where Vince Lombardi once practiced what Larry Merchant called "The pick-up-your-bed-and-walk school of medicine -- or the Church of Lombardi Scientist." Ignore the injury, Lombardi roared, and it will go away.

Someone suggested to Russ Grimm yesterday that two stress fractures in a leg might be a hangnail for an offensive guard but they would put an ordinary person in bed for three weeks.

"You can't make any money in bed," Grimm said, smiling. "You have to play. It's just a matter of how long you can take the pain. You rest a little during the week, and you take a few pain pills before the game. Then you just forget it's sore."

Just forget it, the man said. Jack Youngblood played on a broken leg. Merlin Olsen called himself a coward for considering sitting out a game with a groin injury; he played, and he spent the next four days in the hospital. Billy Kilmer left a hospital bed to play. Len Hauss played with phlebitis that could have killed him.

Why? Duty, honor, vanity, fear, courage, peer pressure, stupidity, love.

All the usual reasons anybody does anything.