Santa had a vision. The massive distributor of gifts to needy children near Christmas, who also plays defensive tackle for the Redskins under the alias Dave Butz, sat in a small film room yesterday and saw football utopia.

"I love people who have the willingness to learn," he said, "that have a quest, a thirst for learning, to be better, to improve themselves. I'd give up all-pro for a team, a defensive unit, that wanted to be the best it could be, that got after somebody, that played the defenses that were called superbly.

"That's what we're tryin' to do here."

Never mind that Butz did not make all-pro anyway KEN DENLINGER/ This Morning this season, although he certainly deserved it. And what he dreams, the concept of ultimate teamwork, is so basic that the naive assume it already permeates sport. You mean, golly whiz, that some of the serfs in the NFL might be selfish, that they might put petty jealousy above the best interests of the team?

Yep.

Butz is pretty sure he had to battle The Over The Hill Gang on the Redskins almost as intently as opposition guards and centers when he came to Washington from the Cardinals more than seven years ago. He thought it strange that his tackle partner, Diron Talbert, called so many audibles during combat that Butz never recognized. Butz would hesitate, just a fraction of a second, but long enough to be embarrassed and for Talby's buddy, Bill Brundige, to be sent into the game.

"Extreme frustration on the bench," Butz puts it, he being not only a Purdue graduate but also one with a double major. George Allen, a supposedly brilliant coach, would yank him just when he was about to maim the oaf who had just tromped over him. Butz is at his butt-kickin' best right after he's been beaten, Butz insists.

"A guy capable of kickin' somebody has his ass on the bench," he says, still incredulous, "with splinters up it. So that's what I did the first couple of years. Then, when I knew the audibles and they couldn't mess with me, when I'd heard 'em enough in games and seen 'em in writing, they couldn't screw with me one iota.

"That's when I excelled. That's when I went past 'em like a comet, because they were so old they got double-teamed, were so weak they couldn't do it."

For reasons that include ignorance, laziness, some other real-world sins that are part of the NFL and the fact that he looks more heroic than he can ever be, Butz is a 300-pounder who gets overlooked. His--and the Redskins'--concept of team also is to blame.

Next time you see a blitzer bury a quarterback, and the Redskins hope it is Saturday against the Vikings, think about how he got there. Probably, that journey to the opponent's jugular was uncluttered because Butz banged two linemen together, as a bouncer would unruly toughs in a bar.

Or a passer might be willing to fall into the arms of a Dexter Manley rather than step forward, in a crumbling pocket, and run smack into the condo Butz. Anyone who thinks, Butz reasons, ought to think Butz for all-pro. Or somebody, in addition to strong safety Tony Peters, on the stingiest defense in the league.

"I've had head coaches here, in team meetings," he said, "say: 'This play depends on Dave Butz taking two guys.' Puts a helluva lot of pressure on you. Laymen don't know that, don't recognize it. But that's what he said. You're only as good as the people you associate with. Whether by choice or design."

As a free agent, Butz got equally flattering offers from the Redskins and Raiders: double his Cardinals salary, all of it guaranteed. "I accepted Washington's offer," he said, "because they said: 'Here it is.' The Raiders said: 'We'll think about it.'

"Oakland called the next day and said: 'We'll take him.' They (the Cardinals) said: 'Sorry, he's gone to the Redskins.' "

Butz would have stayed, for half the Redskins' money and no guarantees, he said. The Cardinals refused.

"That's why, to this day," he said, "I try to kick St. Louis' ass every time we play. Not cause of the players on the team (with whom he still is close). We went through a lot of games together, losses. When you win, you get close as a team; when you lose, you get close as friends."

Butz snorts especially hard against his dear friend, center Dan Dierdorf, because he sees the face of Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill.

Even though the job description often requires sacrifice, defensive tackles need not be unknown. Father Murphy (Merlin Olsen), the nation's saw salesman (Bob Lilly) and Manster (Randy White) all played the position. Butz is larger than all of them.

But perhaps not so mean on game day. Or as consistent certainly. Criticism of Butz tends to be off the record, his critics being smaller by about half a ton. Don't say Butz is dominant, a Redskins coach said the other day, amending an earlier assessment, say he can be dominant, that he has been dominant.

"Every quarterback I hit knows I hit him," Butz said. "If you mean do I have the ability to blind-side a quarterback, or hit him in the middle of the back as he's throwing the ball, I have absolutely no problem with that whatsoever. To hit him with 300 pounds, plus about another 30 pounds of equipment.

"Because my problem in getting to him is immense. Once I'm there, I'm gonna hit him. But if I had to hit that quarterback--and I could take his legs out from under him, break his legs or whatever--I wouldn't do it. I'd still hit him high.

"I've broken collarbones, dislocated a few shoulders on some quarterbacks. On one quarterback, I heard the bone break, when Karl (Lorch) and I hit him. He was trying to get up and I said: 'Stay down; you're hurt.' "

Still, Butz tries not to get acquainted with the fellow across from him. It might hurt to hurt him. Teammate Ron Saul said he would much rather play the Butz of four seasons ago than the Butz of this season, that Butz may not have grown much but he has matured greatly.

Some Redskins were mellow after practice yesterday because of 24 bottles of pink champagne Butz had brought, in addition to cigars, in celebration of daughter Kiffin's birth the day before. At one point, her new father looked around the emptying dressing room and recalled a Redskins line from the Allen days that seemed apropos of nothing and perhaps everything:

"The more you can do the sooner you can wear out."