"In the USFL, we're all expansion teams. We all started from scratch," said Chicago Blitz Coach George Allen. The question then is why, after a half-season of play, the Federals have the worst record in the new league, having won only one of nine games, while such teams as Chicago, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay have proved consistent and entertaining?

"Coming into this thing, we all knew someone would be in this sort of position," said Coach Ray Jauch. "I just wish it didn't have to be us." Owner Berl Bernhard, who has seen more and more season ticket holders staying at home even when the weather is sunny, has the same wish.

To be sure, a combination of injuries and bad luck has prevented the Federals from winning more games. Serious injuries to running back Craig James and quarterback Mike Hohensee--the two most promising offensive players on the team--kept Washington at a disadvantage for more than a month. And the Federals, through missed field goals, mishandled snaps and calamitous last-minute mistakes, have undermined several good efforts.

"With a few things going their way, the Federals might be 5-4 today," said Philadelphia Stars President and General Manager Carl Peterson. "I think they have as much talent as anybody." Allen, whose Blitz plays the Federals on Sunday, agrees.

But according to sources, there are other explanations for the team's inauspicious beginnings. Perhaps the most important is the atmosphere on the team--lax at first, and now, with so many losses, increasingly tense.

"I'd say that Ray (Jauch's) philosophy is very liberal," said one player who asked not to be identified. "He likes to be known as the Bud Grant of the USFL. In training camp, sometimes we were told to get conditioning on our own. Older players might know what it takes to get ready, but not all the younger ones do.

"There were hardly ever any fines or anything like that. The curfew in training camp was midnight. I was in the NFL and midnight's the latest curfew I've heard of.

"And no one even checked. That's inviting disaster. I think (the atmosphere) hurt us in the beginning of the season."

Linebacker Jess McIntyre, who played for Frank Kush at Arizona State, said, "This is a piece of cake. We hardly ever do any running."

Mike Faulkiner, the team's former director of player personnel and now an assistant coach with the New York Jets, said, "The toughness and conditioning and intensity of the team is a little loose. You're in a tough business, you've got to be ready. Birmingham, Michigan, Arizona--they're young teams but they play with intensity and aggressiveness."

According to team sources, Jauch has been more assertive in recent weeks, working more on the team's discipline, assessing more fines for various infractions, but the atmosphere at practice is still generally casual. The team arrives at the RFK practice facility in the early afternoon for meetings and films. It takes the field at around 3 p.m. and practices for two hours.

Even in training camp, there was little of the running and conditioning drills that are an ordinary part of professional football practice sessions. The atmosphere is almost calm. After last week's 35-3 loss to Birmingham, Bernhard wondered aloud why the team lacked "esprit" and "the burn to win."

"When you're losing, everyone becomes a coach in a hell of a hurry," said Jauch. "Our problems have nothing to do with conditioning. Those are ridiculous statements."

The Federals are also caught in a paradoxical personnel situation. It became obvious after training camp that the team's original players--starters and backups alike--did not make up a competitive unit. Without Faulkiner's help, General Manager Dick Myers has searched everywhere for new players since the season began; 18 players now on the 40-man roster were not in Jacksonville.

As the search for quality continues, the starting lineup has changed at nearly every position since the opener. Only six players--guard Myke Horton, running back James, defensive end Coy Bacon, middle linebacker Ed Baxley and defensive backs Jeff Brown and Doug Greene--are still starting at their original positions, and Baxley will be replaced by recently signed Kevin McClain and Greene may be replaced against Chicago. At kicker, on the offensive line and at linebacker, the starters have varied nearly every week.

Some additions, such as receivers Joey Walters and Mike Holmes and running back Billy Taylor, have been valuable improvements.

"I think overall we've signed a lot of players that have improved the team," said Myers. "You just have to look at a Joey Walters or a Jeff Sevy (an offensive lineman) to see that."

Successful football teams usually require constant practice and repetition of plays as a unit. With just a month of training camp and no real exhibition games, none of the league's 12 teams has had very much time to work together--a factor that probably accounts for the often sloppy play as much as the USFL's uneven talent. But with their extraordinary rate of personnel turnover, the Federals have had even less time to develop than most of their opponents.

Players such as Hohensee have asked why they have been replaced in the middle of games. They say it is difficult to concentrate while worrying about whether they will stay in the game or the lineup.

In Monday's meeting with Bernhard, the players told him they wanted to know who was starting and to work consistently with that lineup. Still, the club continues to make moves--yesterday the Federals announced they traded a draft choice for Michigan guard Tony Vitale, and that defensive back Derrick Goddard, formerly of the Stars, will have a three-day tryout.

"I understand the complaint," Jauch said, "but I think we had to find the right players before we could stick with them. You need the talent first. If you stay with players without enough talent, what do you have then?"

A key to Chicago's success has been the experience of quarterback Greg Landry, who played with the Baltimore Colts and Detroit Lions. "He was our first priority," Allen said. Until he injured his wrist, veteran NFL quarterback John Reaves was a mainstay for Tampa Bay.

The Federals have three quarterbacks--Joe Gilliam, Hohensee and Kim McQuilken. None of them, however, has the varied talent Landry provides the Blitz.

Despite the Federals' rough start, Faulkiner is confident: "My heart is still with them. I think they have more talent than anybody in their division except Philadelphia. But when you're 1-8, what it takes is a win or two to get you believing in yourself again. You need that more than anything."

"I think we're all searching for answers," Jauch said.