America didn't figure the Washington Redskins to start 0-2.

It's a matter of great expectations. This is the team that, in the last two seasons, has done more than work its way to consecutive Super Bowls.

This is the team that has worked its way into the national consciousness.

"The Cowboys, the Raiders, the Redskins," says coach-turned-commentator Dick Vermeil. "They're the three teams people ask you about."

This season, Vermeil still gets the questions. But, in the case of the Redskins, following losses to the Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers, he is giving different answers.

"This certainly is one of the surprises early in the season," he said yesterday from his office in Philadelphia. "But it's too early to start assuming they are not as good as they were. They've played two playoff games to start off the year."

Two games hardly make a season. Yet the Redskins, who play the 2-0 New York Giants Sunday, have become a major topic of conversation around the NFL.

"There was a time people didn't look on them as a big winner," said Hank Stram, once coach of the Kansas City Chiefs, now of CBS TV and radio. "They could sneak up on people.

"Now, every game is a Super Bowl. People say, 'If we beat the Redskins, we can beat anybody.' "

This is nothing new for teams coming off Super Bowl seasons. Beat them and you've made your year. As 49ers tight end Russ Francis put it, "People measure themselves against teams like Washington."

Usually, those Super Bowl teams look good by comparison. In the seasons following the 18 Super Bowls, only four participants have begun their years 0-2: the 1969 Baltimore Colts (final record 8-5-1), the 1980 Los Angeles Rams (11-5), the 1982 49ers (3-6) and the 1984 Redskins.

The other 32 Super Bowl teams all won at least one of their first two.

One more statistic. A team that started out the season 0-2 has never, ever, made it to the Super Bowl the following January.

Gil Brandt is vice president of player development for the Dallas Cowboys, a team that pays a lot of attention to the Redskins. He has watched this 0-2 start and believes the Redskins have a valid reason for their humble beginning.

"I'm not sure anybody played two tougher opponents back-to-back than those two Washington played," he said. "They could very easily end up 13-3 or 12-4. They're no flash in the pan or anything like that."

Coach Tom Landry said the other day that, "as far as he is concerned, the Washington Redskins are still the team to beat in the NFL," Brandt related.

"People are talking about it, sure," Brandt continued. "What people hang their hats on is 0-2. Nobody has ever gone to the Super Bowl starting 0-2. But my contention is that there is so much more parity than there ever has been before that it really doesn't matter."

Positive aspects of an 0-2 start abound, amazingly enough. The Redskins' losses have come to two non-division teams. The Cowboys are 1-1 following a loss to the Giants last weekend, which means they have one loss to an NFC East team.

"They lost in the second and third dimension of tie breakers," Brandt said. "The Cowboys have already lost in the first dimension of tie breakers."

Silver linings aside, there are those who think the Redskins' start does mean something.

"Definitely," said Jimmy (the Greek) Snyder, the CBS analyist. "I said they were going to have a hard time of it this year. Now, people are coming up to me and saying, 'Jimmy, it looks like you were right about the Redskins.'

"They have great personnel and great coaching, but I just don't know if they've gotten over that Raider game yet."

That Raiders game is the 38-9 loss in Super Bowl XVIII. Do we have a trend developing here?

"There is one question," said Merlin Olsen, the former Ram who graduated to television. "Did that do something to their chemistry?

"This is a team not built as most successful teams were built. It was built with a lot of free agents (25 on the 49-player active roster). This is a team that came together like magic, and then they were embarrassed in the Super Bowl.

"I don't think anyone expected them to be 0-2 at this point. I don't think they expected to be 0-2. But I don't mean it's time for fans to throw up their hands and say, 'What's wrong with the Redskins?'

"It's like being in a slump as a baseball player or having troubles with your swing as a golfer. If this continues for the Redskins in the third, fourth or fifth game, then you begin to doubt yourself, lose self-confidence. Right now, though, it's only two games into a 16-game season."

Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs is aware of the national attention his team is drawing.

"It's natural," he said yesterday at Redskin Park. "Just about everybody has a reason. Outside, everybody cares about the Redskins. This is happening, that is happening. We get a little bit of everything."

Gibbs preferred to look at the bright side, to focus, as Brandt doid, on the fact that the two losses are non-divisional.

"I don't know what point is make or break," Gibbs said. "I don't think we want to get down 0-3."

But Stram said the Redskins have come a long way, regardless.

"A few years ago," he said, "they were the Rodney Dangerfield of pro football. No one gave them any respect. Right now, they are a shining star."

Redskins' proponents are everywhere. Francis, who saw them face to face, said this isn't a real 0-2 team anyway.

"A true 0-2 team, being down 27-0, may have scored once, or come back with a field goal," he said. "They would have had trouble starting again.

"The Redskins didn't."