How much excitement can one football game generate?

Were it only Redskins-Cowboys night at Texas Stadium at 9 p.m. Monday (WJLA-TV-7), that probably would be plenty.

But there's more. Lots more. It's the first test for a Washington Redskins team that has changed more than any other since Coach Joe Gibbs' first team in 1981.

It's the debut of the Riggo-Rogers tag-team backfield, of Broadway Joe Namath on Monday Night Football and of another try as Dallas' No. 1 quarterback for Danny White.

It's a time to renew bad acquaintances, to vent a whole offseason's worth of frustrations and to get the jump in the NFC East as the whole football world watches on TV.

Oh, and it's Joe Theismann's 36th birthday, too.

"The thing that concerns me most is the comments from their players after last year's game (a 30-28 Redskins' victory), when they obviously had the intent of physically hurting some of our players," Gibbs said, referring to Dallas safety Bill Bates' statement that he wanted to break Theismann's nose after the Redskins quarterback danced around to kill time near the end of the game.

"Some of their players said it and meant it last year, and it seems like they mean it this year, too," said Gibbs. "We will go down and play with that objective in mind. We will be particularly alert. I don't think their approach has been right. That's not football."

Gibbs said he has not called Dallas Coach Tom Landry, nor anyone in the league, to discuss his feelings.

"I don't plan on talking to anybody about anything," he said. "We will react to what happens in the game."

A further irritation for the Redskins came to light just before they boarded their charter at Dulles Airport this afternoon.

Gibbs issued a press release chastising the Dallas Cowboys Official Weekly for publishing a letter in its Aug. 24 issue from a Tom Whidby of Vienna, Va. Whidby wrote that Theismann, in remarks at the opening of his new Vienna restaurant, predicted a fourth consecutive Washington victory over Dallas and said, among other things, that the Cowboys had a "sorry offense."

"We must point out this letter is full of obvious falsehoods that Joe Theismann never made," Gibbs said, "as well as the fact that Theismann has not even opened a new restaurant."

Gibbs said the police could find no trace of the mysterious Mr. Whidby in the Washington metropolitan area, and he called it "appalling" that the publication would print "such damaging, libelous remarks without conducting any standard research . . . "

Theismann notwithstanding, this game presents many contradictions. This will be the third time in five seasons that the Redskins have begun with the Cowboys.

In Gibbs' first game in 1981, the Cowboys beat the Redskins, 26-10. Two years later, in the '83 season-opener, they won again, 31-30. In fact, Gibbs has won only one of four openers (a 37-34 overtime victory over Philadelphia in 1982).

The Cowboys, meanwhile, just happen to have the best opening-day record in the National Football League: 20-4-1 (.820).

"We have not played well in our first game," Gibbs said. So, this summer, he did something about it.

He played his starters more in preseason games, he altered practice and weight schedules at training camp and he installed the opening game plan earlier than he's ever done before.

"It didn't matter if it was Dallas or not," Gibbs said. "One year, then two years -- maybe something was happening after four years. I'll know after Monday night."

Said middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz: "We're about as prepared for an opening game as we could be."

A season certainly doesn't teeter in the balance opening night, but it does receive a healthy shove in one direction or another.

"We are putting together a blend of youth and veterans," said Landry. "We hope to be strong in the latter part of the year. Sure, you'd like to be in the middle of the season before hitting the Redskins, but that isn't going to happen."

Said Theismann, "When we've lost the opening game to them in the past, we've chased them all year. It's always been a situation where we try and catch that big star at the end."

Defensive end Dexter Manley puts it in much more extreme terms.

"It's a situation of a playoff do-or-die," he said. "Down the road, if we lose, it might haunt us as we try to get into the playoffs. I think this is a must-win for us."

And it's only September.