Over the past week, Joe Gibbs has been told that the concept of the one-back offense is dead, that he did not make adjustments quickly enough to counter altered defenses in St. Louis and New York, that his stomach looks a tad bigger than it did a month ago and that there seem to be a few more gray flecks in his sideburns.

"The trouble with football is it seems so simple," Gibbs said. "But it really is very complex. I wouldn't be here at the office late at night if it wasn't. I think the possibilities in football are infinite."

Two weeks ago, Gibbs' Redskins had a five-game winning streak and a one-game lead in the NFC Eastern Division. They had just dusted Dallas, 34-14, and the possibilities for another special season seemed infinite.

Then the Cardinals' defense started blitzing and beat the Redskins, 26-24, at Busch Stadium. Next, the Giants moved two inside linebackers to the line of scrimmage to create a five-man front and let outside linebacker Lawrence Taylor roam and beat the Redskins, 37-13.

Now the Redskins are 5-4 and tied with the Giants in second place, one game behind Dallas and St. Louis. They play Atlanta Monday night in RFK Stadium having lost as many games in nine weeks as they did in the previous two seasons when their combined record was 28-4.

So Gibbs calls this "one of the trying times in my career" and is so typically engrossed in his work he admits he would not have known of the assassination of India's prime minister had his wife, Pat, not called him at the office late one night, a full day after the event.

Gibbs has not forgotten his first season as Washington coach, 1981. "I think the 0-5 start will always be with me," he said. Nor has he forgotten how a Super Bowl victory in his second season led to a 14-2 regular season last year, which led to what he refers to as "the shock of the Super Bowl" last January.

"It seems like in football whenever you reach your highest peaks you all of a sudden have some of your biggest setbacks," Gibbs said.

He refuses to use injuries as an alibi for the 5-4 start. At this time last year, he was Joe Genius, his offense en route to a league-record 541 points in the regular season.

This season the second-guessers have descended on Gibbs. They ask him why he became so conservative, continually running John Riggins more times for less yardage, late in the game against St. Louis even as the Redskins' 11-point lead faded into defeat. Then they ask about the Giants and why weren't more offensive adjustments made by the Redskins.

A few people even dust off the memory of the Super Bowl when Joe Theismann's "rocket-screen" pass with 12 seconds left in the first half was intercepted by Los Angeles Raiders linebacker Jack Squirek, who returned it five yards for a touchdown. They still ask why.

Gibbs responds to all of this by saying that football coaches always will be questioned. He said that opposing defenses had been trying different twists against the Redskins' offense for the past two years and that, when Gibbs counteradjusted to win so many of those games, nobody said a word.

He said, "You only become stupid or second-guessed when you lose. The key is, don't lose."

Gibbs recalled that he was shocked standing on the sideline in '82 when the Giants used a defensive tactic he had never seen: when the Redskins' H-back (motion tight end) went in motion, linebacker Taylor would follow. "I said, 'Holy mackerel, what is that?' " Gibbs related. And when the Redskins tried to run away from Taylor in that game, Taylor didn't follow the H-back in motion and the Redskins ended up running right into him.

"All of a sudden it dawned on us what was happening, that when Taylor went (with the H-back), the Giants were in a two-deep zone," Gibbs said. "We had been killing people by sending the H-back over the middle (on a pass route) and the Giants were trying to keep the H-back from the middle. That was their (defensive) evolution to stopping the H-back."

The next time the Redskins faced the Giants they figured a sure way to neutralize Taylor: if he followed the H-back to one side, just run to the other side. And if Taylor didn't follow the H-back and remained on one side, then the Redskins' running game would go the other way.

"I always try to look at things and analyze. I have to make decisions on the field I can live with. That's the most important thing. If I felt like I was making decisions to please other people, then I don't think I could ever be a success," Gibbs said. "You've got to have convictions.

"For instance in the Cardinals game everybody thought we were too conservative at the end. That's an easy thing to say. I think that could have happened to me 30 or 40 times before this -- people saying we were too conservative -- but it didn't happen because we made first downs.

"Okay, so look at the last series against the Cardinals. (The Redskins took possession at their own 23, holding a 24-23 lead with 2:53 to play.) We needed a first down to win. Everybody knew that. So what are my options?

"Come out and throw our best pass to get us going. But we've got one of the best (offensive) lines in football and one of the best fullbacks (Riggins) and we've won maybe 30 or 40 games by taking the ball at the end of games and running. I know in my heart we can make first downs running. If I'm going to lose the game, I want to do it by seeing if we can run the ball.

"If I had chosen to throw the ball -- they were pressing our receivers outside, so it would have had to have been a deep throw -- and we had thrown an incompletion, that would have stopped the clock on first down. If I had done that, having John Riggins and our offensive line, people would have said, 'This guy has lost his mind.' "

Riggins gained four yards on first down, lost one yard on second down and, on third and seven, Theismann threw incomplete.

"So we punt the ball and lose," Gibbs said. "But if I had passed the ball (on first down), people would have gone berserk. So I'll get criticism either way there."

Against the Giants' new formation last Sunday, Gibbs' figured the "counter-trey" play would be the perfect offensive antidote. That's the play on which all-pros Russ Grimm at left guard and Joe Jacoby at left tackle pull to the opposite side of center to throw lead blocks.

"I thought counter-trey would be a natural," Gibbs said. "We had matchups where Russ Grimm should kill a 180-pound safety and with Rick Walker (235-pound tight end) matched up with a safety in our three-tight (ends) set. We also would have a 290-pound guy (Jacoby) on Taylor."

But missed blocks by the Hogs kept the Redskins treading in quicksand. Furthermore, the Giants' lead kept expanding and the Redskins were forced to pass.

"The next time we play the Giants," Gibbs said, "we'll have time (to review the defensive formation) and we'll make several other adjustments. You don't have that luxury (of time) in the game and you go into a game expecting to play against certain things.

"Sometimes, we've had (opposing defenses) do different things like that and we come out and bust a run for 30 or 40 yards at the start of the game and that's the end of that (defensive set) . . . I think because of the (offensive) combinations we have that most defenses are reluctant to play us straight.

"They are trying different things to stop us. That, to me, is an advantage to us because people can't play you in their standard defense . . . they've got to gamble to play with us. We're big, we're strong and we do a great job of running the ball. I think for the last year or so, people have said, 'We can't just sit back there (in a standard defensive set) or the Redskins will bust us.' "

He has said the Redskins change their offensive formations from week to week more than any other team in the league. He has said the Redskins added a play (called 20-AOI) in the offseason to help offset the type of straight 3-4 defense (with linebackers pinched close to the line) that the Raiders used to defuse the Redskins' running game in the Super Bowl. By the play's design, the Redskins double-team the nose tackle and pull a guard.

"It would have helped (center Jeff) Bostic in the Super Bowl," Gibbs said. The play worked successfully three times in a preseason game against the Raiders and now Gibbs says, "Since then, when we play teams that run a straight defense, we run a combination of AOI, counter-trey, the 'guts' and to the outside, and we have stormed people. They have had a tough time holding up."

And while he said, "You have to be careful not to get mired in the negatives and forget about the positives of coaching," Gibbs knows the other side, too. He smiled and nodded when, three weeks shy of his 44th birthday (Nov. 25), he said, "I have a peace within myself that this is the place where I am supposed to be."