They said he was like the Joe Washington of old Sunday afternoon, when the Washington Redskins' most nimble running back carried the ball 13 times for 66 yards.

Yet, in these days when John Riggins averages 25 carries for 91 yards a game, happy thoughts don't dance and prance across Washington's mind, like the way he danced across the RFK Stadium turf in the 27-12 victory over the Kansas City Chiefs.

"I don't want to raise a ruckus," Washington, who turns 30 Saturday, said quietly yesterday afternoon. "But of course I want to play more. I know I can play more."

He had both knees operated on in the offseason, but his concerto efforts in the 23-13 victory at Philadelphia (three carries for 38 yards) and against the Chiefs give Washington cause to say, "I feel as healthy as I've ever felt. Most people didn't think I'd be back and play even one down after last year.

"But I worked hard in the offseason. I didn't lift all the weights and run up all those hills for nothing. I've never said I wanted to carry the sucker 40 times a game. But I need it more than two or three times."

He is 3,778 yards (3.9 per carry) and 303 pass receptions into a seven-year career of shiftiness, of never-ending challenges against defensive linemen who catch the breeze more often than the running back.

He is also a victim of the fact that, right now, Riggins is the one back of the Redskins' one-back offense, the player most responsible for the Super Bowl ascension. Riggins has become the certainty of the Redskins' offense.

And Washington knows all this.

As Don Breaux, coach of the running backs, says, "We've got a thing we believe in and that's the way we will continue to go about it."

Or, as center Jeff Bostic says, "I guess John will continue to run for the majority of the time. We've been successful with that for the last 15 or 20 games. It doesn't really make sense to change something you win with, does it?"

Certainly, this is a valid theory. Just as certainly, it is the Redskins' prevailing theory.

"I want Joe to play just as much as we can get him in the game," said Coach Joe Gibbs. "Obviously, we want to go to John on running situations and we'll get Joe in in long-yardage situations and when John is winded."

Translation: Washington likely will remain a precious role player, going in on second and long or third and long as he did against the Chiefs, where his pass-catching ability can be most advantageous.

"The way we see it, John is like the dull instrument you bludgeon them with," says Breaux, "and Joe is like the rapier."

Against the Chiefs, Washington thrived with sizeable first-half gains: two eight-yarders and one 15-yard run. These gains came on second and long, after the Chiefs had stopped Riggins on first down, then changed to a nickel defense, expecting the pass.

Marveling at Washington's gutsy gains, Joe Bugel, the offensive coordinator, said, "The man was donating his body out there."

It seems long ago now, though it was in the middle of the 1981 season--the year the Redskins started 0-5 and finished 8-8--that Riggins and Washington were in the backfield at the same time. Last year, injury reduced the 5-foot-10, 179-pounder to 44 carries for 190 yards.

Quarterback Joe Theismann says of a two-back system that became a one-back system in the middle of that season, "It didn't work conceptually.

"It's just so difficult figuring what to do with so many weapons. You figure we have maybe 61 offensive plays per game. Joe (Gibbs) has said that John might run 30 times per game. I'll probably throw 25 passes, which leaves maybe five or six plays . . . I think it would be foolish to leave something you're successful with.

"I had the same problem when I came to the Redskins (1974) with Billy (Kilmer). George Allen wanted to stay with him because he had been successful."

Theismann said he and Washington spend time now, after practice, getting "refamiliarized" with each other. "I seriously doubt there is a better one-on-one runner in the league than Joe Washington," Theismann said.

So far, Washington has carried 21 times for 113 yards. That computes to seven carries for nearly 38 yards a game. Yesterday, the former Oklahoma star reaffirmed his preseason statement that he'd like to carry 10 to 15 times a game.

"I carried more Sunday, so maybe I will carry more," he said. "I'm not one to second-guess coaches. My dad was a football coach (at a Texas high school), so I just wouldn't do that.

"I don't really consider myself a role player. I can do everything," said Washington, who has rushed for more than 900 yards in two seasons. That includes 1981, when he rushed for 916 yards and caught 70 passes, prompting Redskins teammates to vote him the team's most vaulable player.

"Whatever happens, happens," Washington said. He spoke quietly. He does not want to rock the boat.

Then, full of self-confidence and a history rich with runs that have made so many defenders look so silly, he added, "Now what? Your guess is as good as mine."

The Redskins still have not filled the 49th spot on the active roster, the one created when linebacker Monte Coleman, with his deep thigh bruise, was placed on the injured reserve list for a minimum of four weeks.

"What we can't decide is what position we want to fill," said General Manager Bobby Beathard, who said the spot will be filled before Sunday's game at Seattle.

Wayne Sevier, the special teams coach, admitted yesterday that the Redskins had the punt return unit on the field when Kansas City's Nick Lowery kicked a 58-yard field goal in the first quarter.

"I was hoping nobody would notice," said Sevier, with a chuckle.