Whatever happened to the days when rivals lived for the chance to indulge in a bit of cold war hobnobbing before kickoff, then took it out on each other in a good old-fashioned grudge tumble? It's a sin and a shame, but nobody hates anybody any more. Just who tamed the savage in these beasts? And how come?

Today at noon, playing with the foam on his shoulder pads, Jim Jeffcoat, the second-year defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys, thought over these questions. He yawned and scratched his chin. "It's a game. Every game's important," he said.

And you said, "But it's more than a game. It's different. You're playing the Redskins at RFK."

"Well, it's the NFC then. A division game."

"What about the rivalry? Come on, now. This is Washington."

"There's a rivalry with all the teams in the division. Everybody wants to be first."

"How do you feel when I say this word: Redskins. Doesn't that affect you?"

"I really can't say that it does. I'm still new."

"You mean nobody's pumped you up about the importance of this game?"

"There are different ways of doing that, of pumping up. My personal opinion is quiet. Like I said, it's a game."

There were others whose expressions mirrored Jeffcoat's. It was a few minutes past noon and almost all the Cowboys were sitting around in front of their lockers, eating clam chowder with plastic spoons. Only Everson Walls, who kept his arms crossed, managed to speak with some sense of mission. He was talking about John Riggins, the Redskins' great offensive weapon.

"I don't think he's as hard to tackle as some of the great backs," Walls said, opening a can of worms. "But he's definitely one of the good backs. That offensive line he has is so premier that no one ever touches him for the first three yards. Once he gets on a roll and gets steam built up down field, that's when you have problems."

Then Walls, getting away from comparing "good" players with "great," was saying he knew some of the Redskins personally. Doc Walker and Art Monk, Charlie Brown. Not necessarily Virgil Seay so much, but Alvin Garrett. Joe Theismann, but then Theismann knows everybody. Walls figured he wasn't going to say anything to any of these guys Sunday. They had played offseason basketball games together at Capital Centre; the Cowboys won two of three. He'd said enough then.

And, besides, he was saying, "Football's a game of injuries. The one good thing knowing a guy off the field can prevent is hitting him low at the knees or where he's vulnerable to injury. Other than that, if they get a good shot at your head, they'll go at your head, whether they know you or not."

In the season opener last year against Washington, the Redskins led, 23-3, at halftime. Quarterback Danny White rallied the team in the second half, and the Cowboys won, 31-30. That same team won seven straight games and had a 12-2 record in December. But Washington won the duel for the NFC East championship and precipitated the slow death of the Cowboys, who spend much of their time these days contemplating such imponderables as their up and down "confidence level."

After Dallas' 31-20 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals Sunday, Coach Tom Landry said, "There is a very big difference between this year's team and last year's team. Last year, we were just sitting around and waiting for the next Washington game. We were skilled enough and good enough and experienced enough that we could pull out games if we weren't playing very well. We are not that way this year. We are not that skilled."

Landry also said the Cowboys do not have the same "feel" they had last year, and fullback Ron Springs agreed. "We consider ourselves in the Redskins' class, but we haven't shown that lately," Springs said. "This game will tell a big story. Playing Washington will be tough, but we don't like to lose two in a row. Going up to D.C., we know what we'll get up there. The fans go crazy and we'll have to keep their hands down . . . Once we get close to the game, the atmosphere'll pick up. Once we get up there, it'll happen."

In much the same way Walls had intended to compliment Riggins, Springs was quick to point out the fine play of Redskins defensive tackle Dave Butz, whom he repeatedly called "Bucks." "They've got four big men up front," he said. "Moving Bucks will be tough. Bucks can really play the game."

And then there was wide receiver Mike Renfro, whose father Ray was an assistant coach with the Redskins in 1966-67. "I lived in Chevy Chase," he said. "I couldn't help it. I was a big fan of the 'Skins."

There is a picture of Mike Renfro at age 10, taken at a Pee-Wee football banquet in Washington. It was his first year of organized football, and he's shaking hands with a man holding a trophy. Renfro admits he looks a little like Beaver Cleaver in the picture, "with my burr haircut."

And now, a few short days before returning to the place where he first learned the game, Renfro said, "Playing the Redskins will be a great incentive for me personally. But we're coming off a disappointing loss, and there's an added incentive to perform better. It should bring out the best in us, but you know, it's still a little early in the week. And it's still sinking in that it's the Redskins we're going up there to play."