On Jim Hanifan's office wall at Busch Memorial Stadium, there is a framed black-and-white picture of Merlin Olsen, on the set as prime-time TV's former Father Murphy, standing over a mock tombstone with Conrad Dobler's name on it.

"Gone but not forgiven," the tombstone reads. Olsen, a former defensive tackle with the Los Angeles Rams, is smiling.

Hanifan is smiling back. Dobler was one of his favorites when Hanifan was the St. Louis Cardinals' offensive line coach and Dobler, who was known to have bitten an opponent or two back in the mid-'70s, was its all-pro offensive guard.

Under the picture, inside the frame, is the real message. "The ultimate compliment to an offensive lineman," it reads.

"Olsen saw the tombstone on the set and had them write Conrad's name on it," Hanifan said. "When I heard about it, I made sure I got a copy of the picture. What better praise could there be for an offensive lineman?"

Jim Hanifan, who used to play on the end of offensive lines years ago in California, first made a name for himself in the National Football League as an offensive line coach. Obviously, it wasn't an especially big name.

Perhaps it still isn't. But after five years as the Cardinals' head coach, as he prepares for the biggest game of his coaching career Sunday against the Washington Redskins at RFK Stadium, Hanifan finally has come out of the trenches.

The easiest way to mark the progress of a coach is to check his record. In 1980, his first season, the Cardinals were 5-11. In 1979, they were 7-9, followed by 5-4, 8-7-1, and, now, in 1984, 9-6. Up, up and away?

"Unfortunately," Hanifan said this week, "my good friend Joe Gibbs is in the way. Tell him something: 'Now look, allow some of the others of us to have their day.' "

If the Cardinals beat the Redskins, they will win the NFC East title and will be host to a playoff game for the first time in the team's 25-year history in St. Louis. If they lose, they are out of the playoffs.

Either way, they would have proved their coach right. Before the season, Hanifan told a quarterback club, "From the bottom of my heart . . . we're going to have a helluva football team."

Hanifan denies ever having a five-year plan for this team. Yet, 10 games into his first season, anticipating a weekend like the one just ahead, he sat alone in his office and made a decision that changed everything.

He decided rookie Neil Lomax would be the starting quarterback, and benched Jim Hart, the Cardinals' quarterback for more than a decade.

"It was a very traumatic time," Hanifan said. "My staff didn't even want to do it. On that one, I was all by myself. That night, I looked up at the roof and said, 'Lord, are you trying to test me?' "

The next day, he called Hart, now the Redskins' backup quarterback, into his office. "I wish there was a class way of doing this," Hanifan said.

"There is no class way to doing this," Hart said.

Later, as he watched Lomax practice with the first team, he thought to himself, "It was the end of an era, and I'm the one that did it."

Hanifan tinkered everywhere that first year. He cut former all-pro center Tom Banks and two former No. 1 draft picks, quarterback Steve Pisarkiewicz and kicker Steve Little. Later, he decided to move defensive back Roy Green to wide receiver. Green became an all-pro last season; Lomax became one this season.

"He had guts," said Hanifan's offensive coordinator, Rod Dowhower. "If those decisions don't work out, we're not sitting here playing for the division championship."

It took a while, but almost everyone is a believer now. "He's starting to remind me more and more of Coach Bear Bryant," linebacker E.J. Junior, who played at Alabama, told a reporter. "He has that interest in you on and off the field. And I think that's what coaching is all about."

It's no coincidence that Hanifan said the psychology classes he took in high school have been more helpful than anything else with the Cardinals. "Sometimes I feel I should put a sign up in front of my door," he said.

Hanifan, 51, 6 feet 5 and now on the portly side, left his father's chicken ranch outside of Los Angeles for the game of football and never returned. He played end at the University of California and led the country in receiving in 1954. His pro playing career wasn't long and wasn't in the NFL; he went to Canada for a year, then played for a team in the Army coached by Don Coryell.

Soon, Hanifan started coaching, and, in 1972, joined Coryell to help with the San Diego State offense, working with the line.

In 1973, when Coryell went to the Cardinals as head coach, Hanifan tagged along. He followed Coryell to the San Diego Chargers in 1979, where he worked with Gibbs as the assistant head coach until the Cardinals called again.

He has become a St. Louis institution in five seasons. Recently, as he left a local restaurant, a fan stopped him to ask about a recent loss to Dallas. Hanifan, still upset at several questionable calls, told him. "Colorful words and all," said Floyd Peters, the Cardinals' assistant head coach, who has known Hanifan for 25 years.

"I think the guy was kind of taken aback, but that's just the way Jim is," Peters said.

Peters often is asked to describe Hanifan. "Give him a cigarette and a beer and he can talk forever," he said. "He's one of those guys whose battery is charged forever."

At work or at play. Hanifan is first-generation Irish, which may explain everything. The white hair, blue eyes, red face and penchant for beer only add life to the portrait. He may be the only coach in the NFL with a shillelagh hidden behind his desk.

It's a good prop for his stories. His father, who moved to the West from Ireland after forsaking the priesthood ("That was fortunate for my brother and me," Hanifan said), was 52 when Hanifan was born. He never encouraged his son o play sports.

"He was an All-Ireland Gaelic football player," Hanifan said, "but my mother kept only one of his medals," throwing out the others at his request. "I think he felt it was a waste of time (to remember sports)."

He died at 87. When Hanifan visited him in the hospital just before his death, he heard him whispering and moved close.

"He was conversing with his teammates, playing the game back in the old country."