Owner Berl Bernhard of the Federals met with his players yesterday in an unusual 40-minute closed session, but declined to say what action he planned to take to improve the team's performance. As for the status of Coach Ray Jauch, Bernhard said, "I would just rather look at the whole picture for now."

Bernhard and the players agreed among themselves not to discuss what went on in the meeting. "It was just a nice little discussion," said one player with a facetious twinkle. "It was behind closed doors," said another.

But according to some sources, the meeting was quite substantive. Bernhard asked the players to tell him what they felt had gone wrong; among the main topics were the team's constantly shifting lineup and frequent roster changes.

The meeting ended with a flourish. Applause and laughter could be heard even with the doors closed and locked.

"These guys are very upbeat," Bernhard said. "They really think they are winners. They think they can wrap up the next half of the season. I was surprised at their incredible optimism about their ability. They don't look at themselves as losers."

After Bernhard returned to his downtown law office, many of the remaining players stayed on to enjoy a catered dinner of spaghetti, meatballs, garlic bread and beer.

But as cheerful as the afternoon seemed, it is clear that Bernhard is considering changes. He compared the team's performance Sunday to "being in irons"--a nautical term that describes the predicament a sailor finds himself in when wind passes on both sides of his sails.

"My philosophy is that consistency is what ultimately brings about a winning team," Bernhard said. "You can't go through wild gyrations in reaction to each problem. But in an attempt to be consistent, I've been too much given to forebearance. You can't always let things go on their own course."

Bernhard had a private discussion with Jauch last night. "It was just a nice discussion," Jauch said. "He just wants us to carry on, business as usual. We never discussed anyone's job."

Of Bernhard's decision to play a more hands-on role, Jauch said, "It's certainly his prerogative. I'll tell you, you couldn't ask for a better guy as an owner."

For nine frustrating weeks, Bernhard kept his equanimity and, above all, his distance. Yesterday, however, he wanted to make what he called "a cold assessment of why we are doing so badly."

Following Sunday's 35-3 loss to the Birmingham Stallions, the last-place team in the Central Division, Bernhard fumed, demanding to know why his franchise had compiled a 1-8 record, the worst in the U.S. Football League. After the team's light workout yesterday, the prominent Washington attorney and Democratic Party activist appeared in the Federals dressing room, looking for answers.

The coaches headed for their cars and everyone but the players were told to leave. Dressed in an elegant chocolate-brown pin-stripe suit, a uniform more befitting the board room than the locker room, Bernhard faced a room full of young men in various states of undress.

Before the meeting, quarterback Mike Hohensee, who was pulled in favor of Joe Gilliam in the second half Sunday, said, "I watched the films today. I made some mistakes but I can't believe I was mostly at fault. I don't know who has confidence in me anymore. I have my own confidence." Gilliam was 11 of 34 with four interceptions.

Running back Craig James would not comment on the meeting itself, but earlier in the day said, "Everybody out there was trying but not everybody seemed to know what was going on. There's a degree of uncertainty among our players. The coaches say you have to find the right combinations, but we may be throwing out too many locks. I mean, for example, we have to go with one quarterback and stick with him."

Jauch said he realizes how difficult it is to win when the lineup is in constant flux. "I don't think much more in the way of personnel can be done for this season," he said.

As he did after Bernhard's comments Sunday, Jauch said he could not afford to worry about his job: "I have to think about getting us ready for next week."