About this time last year, the Smurfs were rolling, the Fun Bunch was dancing and the records were falling for the Washington Redskins.

And over and over, Coach Joe Gibbs spoke of "chemistry," that precious blend of players that bred confidence in the parts and in the whole.

Nowadays, to take one peek into the Redskin Park locker room and one peek at the team's common, yet somehow first-place, 8-5 record is to wonder, "Where did everybody and everything go?"

The fact is, the Redskins seem to be searching for their truest identity, 14 weeks into the season. Sixty-four players have been on their active roster and 21 players on that roster have missed at least one game this season.

How many people realize the Redskins had a tight end on their roster named Walt Arnold?

This year.

"We're constantly trying to develop a new chemistry," tight end Rick Walker says. "Obviously, the old one has a hard time surviving . . . This year, we haven't always had the same people in the huddle. Last year, we had Riggo and Art Monk and Joe Theismann and Charlie Brown all doing it all the time. This year, it's been just Art. Right now, we all have the same feeling -- it will come."

"There's not the unity there among the 49 players because so many people have come in and out this year," free safety Mark Murphy said. "I think the Buffalo game (a 41-14 Redskins' victory Sunday) helped. But what I saw in the Buffalo game is a game we would have won, 35-0, last year. Late in the third quarter, they could have made it a close game."

"It seems like we're waiting for something to happen and it doesn't happen," kicker Mark Moseley said. "With (wide receiver) Charlie Brown back last week I think that helped. I think we'll get it back. We've always been able to find a way to win. We have to find that way again."

Yesterday, special teams captain Pete Cronan became the 64th player to join the Redskins' active roster when he cleared league-wide waivers. Cronan returned from injured reserve, where he has been nursing an ankle injury since the preseason. To make room for Cronan, who will play on all special teams units Thursday night at Minnesota, the Redskins waived reserve guard J.T. Turner, who joined the team about a month ago.

Gibbs rejoiced over the return of Cronan, calling him "a real leader."

Once again, Gibbs expressed uncertainty over fullback John Riggins' continued pains in his lower back. "It's a major concern," Gibbs said, listing Riggins' status for Thursday's game against the Vikings as "day to day."

Asked if Riggins, now in the final year of a two-year contract, could withstand another season, Gibbs said, "I would doubt if he would want to go with a sore back for another year. (But) I think John knows his body and knows what he can do."

It seems likely that running back Joe Washington will be reactived from the injured list today, thereby using the Redskins' final roster move. Gibbs said he wants to make certain that Washington is "100 percent" before reactivating him.

Later, Gibbs was talking about chemistry. There is bad chemistry, he said, full of faulty confidence: "It's like going to get your hair cut and you sit down and see the barber is nervous; he can't quite make the right decision and you're sitting there, saying, 'I'm in trouble. This guy can't figure where to put the scissors.' "

And there is good chemistry, too, Gibbs said: "Some other barber takes you and just starts cutting whack-whack-whack-whack and you know it's right."

Gibbs knows that his team has been measured and tested this season (mostly by injury), having spent some time in the wrong barber's chair.

Running back Nick Giaquinto retired his pass-catching expertise after last season and really hasn't been replaced. Strong safety Tony Peters, expected to be a panacea for the pass defense, became mostly ineffective and irrelevant due to a stomach injury. Defensive tackle Bob Slater, the top draft pick, never played a down due to knee injury.

These things test chemistry. Thirteen of the 49 current players weren't on the team at the Super Bowl. "Some of the new guys don't even know about the Bunch," says Walker, about the defunct post-touchdown end-zone dance.

"I personally think that a lot of other teams would have folded with all of the things that have happened to us," Gibbs said. "There are (assistant) coaches on the staff that have been on teams like that."

And Murphy added, "It's hard for the team as a whole to maintain the intensity. You're playing in two Super Bowls and you play a lot of big games. I've been mostly an observer this year, and I can see the (mental) dropoff."

After the San Francisco 49ers had done a free fall, going from Super Bowl champions in 1981 to 3-6 in 1982, their coach, Bill Walsh, noted that two factors at least partially accounted for the downfall: 1) injuries; and 2) key players' inability to maintain career-best levels.

Surely, injuries have greatly affected the Redskins this season. And what about the second factor?

Last season, the Redskins had a club-record seven players go to the Pro Bowl. They had career-best efforts from quarterback Joe Theismann (29 scoring passes, 11 interceptions, league most valuable player), fullback John Riggins (1,347 yards), wide receiver Charlie Brown (78 catches), defensive tackle Dave Butz (12 1/2 sacks) and free safety Murphy (league-high nine interceptions).

This season, none of these players has matched those glossy numbers, for various reasons: Theismann has had many different receivers and has thrown 19 scoring passes and 12 interceptions so far; Brown missed two months with an injury and has just 16 catches so far; Riggins has rushed for 1,052 yards, a stellar mark that is challenged only in the fact that he has missed what amounts to two games due to continued lower back pains.

Butz, 34, has suffered from foot injuries and, most recently, an intestinal virus and has just 4 1/2 sacks; and Murphy, who missed nine games on the injured list, is now a reserve behind Curtis Jordan. (This, too, is an adjustment in chemistry with team leaders such as Murphy and veteran tackle George Starke, once prominent players, now in minor roles that shrink their leadership platforms.)

To this, Gibbs responds, "Now, you take those guys having off years. Butz is down, but Dexter (Manley) is up at 10 1/2 sacks. (Linebacker) Monte Coleman has 9 1/2 and the team is up in sacks. Every now and then, some guys fall off, but other guys step in.

"Art Monk steps in and has carried the load for Charlie and now Charlie's back. For Murphy, Curtis steps in. And (cornerback) Vernon Dean has been roaring. This team has never been three or four guys carrying us."

And Gibbs remains confident that the chemistry will resolve itself, in time, especially with the return of Brown and Cronan and the growing likelihood that running back Joe Washington (strained knee) will be reactivated for Thursday's game. As always, Gibbs believes in his players.

"The key is getting hot at the right time of year. You trace back those teams that made it to the Super Bowl," Gibbs said. "We were hot at the end of the year, both times. That's what I'm hoping for now. I've seen some teams off early in the season and come back late and that's what I think will happen to us."