After a season of gut checks, the Washington Redskins now face an offseason of mind checks.

Just as the Redskins' courage in the face of adversity was examined the past four months, so the club's front office judgment will be measured now.

If the Redskins see themselves as an old and sliding team that needs a major overhaul, then the rest of the 1980s could be dull football years in RFK.

However, if Coach Joe Gibbs and General Manager Bobby Beathard decide their cooperative team-building project still is just beginning, rather than ending, then "Hail to the Redskins" could remain on the charts with a bullet for years.

If Gibbs keeps the courage of his convictions, as Bill Walsh did in San Francisco two seasons ago when his Super Bowl champions collapsed under him, the Redskins soon might rise just as the 49ers' phoenix already has.

But if the Redskins' thinkers panic, then look out below. This team could lose its confidence, its poise and even its big heart in a hurry.

In the wake of the Redskins' 23-19 playoff loss Sunday to Chicago, many NFL watchers will be ready to see the Redskins as a dwindling power. The Hogs, the Fun Bunch, the Riggo Drill, Hip Lip Joe and two dozen role-playing free agents -- a nice interlude, but not enduring NFL stuff.

Nothing would be easier than to see the Redskins as a team in decline -- from league champs to conference champs down to division champs.

When you are the oldest team in the league and start slipping, you worry. When such players as John Riggins, Joe Washington, Mark Moseley, George Starke, Mike Nelms, Mark Murphy, Tony Peters and Dave Butz near the end of the road, you lose sleep.

When your defining strength, a vast line with Riggins plowing behind it, is blunted, you can say, as young Mark May did, "Are the days of the Hogs' dominance over? I don't know. They may be numbered."

A scenario of de-evolution is easy to imagine. Riggins retires; the Hogs have no one worth rooting for. Blitzers gang up on Theismann, who loses his cocky air and good health. Such recent all-pros as Moseley, Nelms, Murphy, Peters and Charlie Brown continue slipping.

This bleak perspective has the ring of reality. But it isn't the only view.

Lost in the Redskins' euphoria of the past three seasons is the possibility that the team got too much too soon under Gibbs and now is paying a high price for unrealistic expectations.

The Redskins' 31-3 streak entering Super Bowl XVIII was doubly amazing because the team relied so heavily on inspiration and turnovers, good luck and good fellowship, trick plays and novel strategy, the absence of injury and the absence of a great opponent within the NFC.

Since that day in Tampa against the Raiders, Redskins luck has run a reverse.

Injuries not only hit hard, but also hit the worst positions at the worst times. The Redskins played the two best teams in football -- Miami and San Francisco -- to start the season. Those defeats sapped confidence and gave every future opponent a game plan.

What the Redskins need to remember is the lesson most great teams obey unquestioningly if they intend to stay near the top for a decade at a time.

Never rebuild.

Just retool.

And have patience.

In the last 25 years, the Orioles and Dodgers in baseball, the Celtics in basketball and the Cowboys and Dolphins in football have lived this law.

Always see one season as part of a larger project of sound construction.

In other words, the Redskins need to perceive themselves as a team that still is becoming itself, finding its identity under Gibbs, rather than as a fully forged club that's disintegrating.

The nucleus of an excellent team still exists. Grimm, Jacoby, Bostic and May are four-fifths of a line any team would envy for 1985. Theismann, 35, probably will stay productive as long as Fran Tarkenton did. An offense with receivers such as Art Monk, Calvin Muhammad and Charlie (Let Him Out of the Doghouse) Brown should find a way to compensate for a decreased workload for Riggins.

Also, a defense with such young Beathard discoveries as Darrell Green, Dexter Manley, Charles Mann, Darryl Grant and Vernon Dean can improve dramatically with draft additions.

Also, Moseley and Nelms shouldn't be shunted aside for not producing the 45-yard field goals and 50-yard kick returns they once did. Don't denigrate what you've got. Moseley was 23 for 25 inside the 40-yard line this year and Nelms, although no longer a game-breaker, was sure-handed and brave Sunday.

The Redskins' biggest fear should be fear itself. It's been said that "it is not a characteristic of wisdom to do desperate things." The Redskins showed some desperation against the Bears. When a whole season is on the line, it's almost a law of athletic nature that you go to your trademark play.

Except the Redskins didn't.

Three times in the fourth quarter, the Redskins got the ball deep in the Bears' territory.

That's when you run Riggins left, Riggins right, Riggins on the counter and Riggins up the gut.

Predictable? Sure.

A huge task behind a battered line facing the NFL's No. 1 defense? Yup.

Would it have worked?

Probably not.

But it would have been the right way to lose. And that's important.

In the heat of battle, there's ample excuse for a bit of panic, a visceral decision to pass because you can't bear to see Riggins off tackle thrown back in your face time after time.

In this offseason, however, there should be time and calm enough to avoid panic. Just as Bill Walsh's ideas were not invalidated by the 49ers' injury-filled year in 1982, so Joe Gibbs' battle plans weren't this season.

Gibbs turned his back on himself when he turned away from Riggins and his Hogs in the fourth quarter Sunday.

Hopefully, during his winter of introspection, Gibbs will rediscover his faith in his men and they in him. The best coaches and teams -- the Tom Landry Cowboys, the Don Shula Dolphins, the Chuck Noll Steelers, the Bud Grant Vikings, the Bill Walsh 49ers -- slip to their knees, but they never fall.

And then they rise again. Slowly, patiently, self-confidently. The old dogs stay on the team, even past their primes, to teach the pups.

A game or even a season might be lost without lasting damage. But not the faith -- the faith in each other that lets you fail together and still take pride in the fight.

Whether the Redskins will keep intact that bond of faith in mutual risk that links them remains to be seen.

The gut checks of a bloody, bone-breaking, frustrating season are past.

The mind checks, and maybe the heart checks, too, are just beginning.