The Detroit Lions are a troubled team.

Missing for the year after knee surgery is star running back Billy Sims. Quarterback Gary Danielson recently criticized General Manager Russ Thomas and continued on down to former all-pro tight end Charlie Sanders, who does radio commentary on Lions games. Strong rumors are circulating that Coach Monte Clark may lose his job.

There are other problems on the field. The Lions have started nine different players at three different positions on the offensive line, which has been decimated by injuries.

The defense, which allowed the fewest points in the National Football Conference a year ago, leads everyone this season in penalties (96 for 811 yards), percentage of completions by opposing quarterbacks (64.2) and fewest interceptions (six).

The Lions will take a a 3-6-1 record to Washington Sunday to play the Redskins. Washington leads the series, 16-3, including a 10-0 mark as the home team.

The loss of Sims, the Heisman trophy winner from Oklahoma, was the first damaging blow for the Lions. He hurt a knee Oct. 21 against Minnesota and immediately had surgery to repair ligament and cartilage tears.

Sims, who had 687 yards in 130 carries for a 5.4 average, highest among all regular running backs, had rushed for more than 100 yards in consecutive victories over Tampa Bay (13-7 in overtime) and the Vikings (16-14) to help the Lions end a four-game losing streak and improve their record to 3-5.

Since his departure, Detroit has lost to Green Bay, 41-9, and blew a 17-3 lead in a 23-23 overtime tie with Philadelphia last Sunday. In the game against the Eagles, Eddie Murray missed a 21-yard field goal less than five minutes into sudden death.

On Monday, Danielson was the guest speaker at a businessmen's banquet in Grand Rapids, Mich. He said he had thought it would be a private affair, with no media members in attendance.

Later in the evening, he discovered a local reporter writing down his every word. Danielson's comments hit the newsstands Tuesday. He was quoted as saying, "You really can't make a case for (defending) Monte Clark. We're basically in the same place as when he started."

The quarterback called Sanders "a jerk" for his radio criticisms and said about Thomas: "I've had my problems with Russ because I didn't think he really felt that the most important thing for the Lions was to win," and, "I don't think there's any doubt that, in the long run, his (Thomas) heavy-handed tactics in negotiations have hurt our team over the last 10 years."

He also criticized highly paid rookies David Lewis and Pete Mandley, the Lions' top draft picks. Lewis, a tight end from California, signed a $1.9 million contract, and Mandley, a wide receiver from Northern Arizona, has a $1.19 million pact. Between them, they have caught 14 passes.

"Here's Keith Dorney (offensive tackle who played in the Pro Bowl in 1982) making $150,000 a year and he's blocking next to a stiff who's making $500,000," Danielson was quoted as saying.

Danielson said he was misquoted, his words taken out of context. He said he defended Clark to the hilt during the speech and mentioned Lewis and Mandley only to illustrate the unfairness in the salary structure that pays more to rookies than most veterans. He did add that what he said about Sanders was quoted accurately and he would stand by it.

There is little doubt that Clark, who has coached the Lions since 1978, is in trouble. The team is 42-56-1 under his leadership, with 9-7 records in 1980 and '83 as his best. It did, however, win the NFC Central Division title last year, its first championship since 1957.

But hard times have since fallen upon the bewildered Lions. Their visit to Washington Sunday might be the next best thing to a tax break for the Redskins.