What a disastrous way for a football team to start a season. What a miserable way for a guy to spend a birthday.

What a score. What a loss.

The Washington Redskins, notoriously slow starters under Coach Joe Gibbs, began 1985 with their worst defeat in six seasons, losing tonight to the Dallas Cowboys, 44-14.

"Losing to those people is real depressing," said offensive tackle Mark May.

How depressing? Quarterback Joe Theismann, who turned 36 today, was intercepted five times by five defensive backs, leading directly to 20 Dallas points. He had never before been intercepted five times in a pro game.

And when replacement Jay Schroeder entered the game when things looked hopeless, he stepped back from his first snap and -- guess what? -- threw an interception that the No. 6 defensive back, Dennis Thurman, returned 21 yards for a touchdown with 2:50 to play.

"They outplayed us and outcoached us," said Gibbs, who never, not even in the 38-9 Super Bowl XVIII loss to the Los Angeles Raiders, had lost this badly as Washington's head coach.

"It was their day. They made the big plays and we did not."

As the game mercifully wound itself to an ending, those remaining from the original crowd of 62,292 sang a rousingly sarcastic round of "Happy Birthday" to Theismann.

"It was never a case where I didn't see everybody (defenders)," Theismann said. "It was a bad learning experience, but I'll have to see what errors I made and I'll have to see which ones can be corrected."

Theismann, who was 15 of 35 for 206 yards and one touchdown, and Schroeder, four of eight for 51 yards, tonight equaled a dubious record of Sammy Baugh's. On Nov. 11, 1951, the New York Giants intercepted Baugh six times.

So thorough was this defeat, the worst for the Redskins since a 38-7 loss to Pittsburgh in 1979, that it almost seems pointless to remember the scoring. Remember the interceptions.

The roll call of felons: Victor Scott, Bill Bates, Everson Walls, Ron Fellows, Michael Downs and Thurman.

The scoring: Rafael Septien's field goals of 53, 39 and 43 yards; Timmy Newsome's one-yard run, Mike Renfro's 55-yard catch from Danny White; Tony Dorsett's nine-yard run, and Scott's 26-yard interception return and Thurman's interception. For Washington, it was meager: John Riggins' one-yard run in the first half and Clint Didier's 19-yard reception in the second.

"The offense didn't even have to show up tonight," White said. "As long as we kept getting the ball where we did, you don't have to do much."

Mistakes and controversy. Gibbs hates them both.

Even as the first half ended with Dallas ahead by 17-7, you could tell it wasn't the Redskins' night.

The first big mistake was rookie cornerback Barry Wilburn's for reacting to receiver Renfro's "out" fake and getting beat on the 55-yard touchdown pass with six seconds remaining in the half. Had Renfro not scored at that time, the Redskins would have been behind by only 10-7 at halftime.

The controversy was an apparent fumble by fullback Newsome after a 16-yard pass to the Washington one midway through the second quarter. Newsome was in the grasp of linebacker Monte Coleman when Wilburn came in from Newsome's right and jarred the ball loose, apparently as Newsome fell.

The ball bounced into the end zone and was recovered by Redskins cornerback Darrell Green, who started one of his usual darting runbacks. But the play was whistled dead, with Dallas still in possession. On the next play, Newsome scored the first touchdown of the game.

The Redskins answered quickly, and, significantly, it was in a drive without starter Riggins until the final yard.

Gibbs held true to his word that George Rogers would alternate into the game after the fourth series, but Rogers gained only one unglorious yard in his first two carries and ended with 47 yards in 13 carries and one costly fumble.

Each time the 77-yard, 10-play parade to the end zone needed encouragement, Didier or Calvin Muhammad popped up to provide it. Theismann first found Didier for a gain of 20 on the right sideline, then Muhammad two plays later in a Willie Mays special for 32 yards, also down that sideline.

That play was a free one for the Redskins. Defensive end Ed (Too Tall) Jones, a little too eager, was practically in the Washington backfield on the play and couldn't get back before the snap, so Theismann threw as long and deep as he could and had the Redskins' longest gain of the half, to the Dallas 30.

On third and nine moments later, he again threw to Muhammad for 12 yards over second-year safety Scott, then immediately went back to Didier, alone and imposing over the middle, for a 16-yard gain to the one.

This is when Riggins reentered the game and, on his second try, bulled into the end zone for the Redskins' only touchdown of the first half at 3:51.

Could the beginning of the game have been any more vintage Redskin? Riggins for six, Riggins for five, Riggins for four. The Redskins started with an unbalanced line, moving right tackle May to the left side, and running Riggins that way.

The Cowboys appeared so confused they called time after four plays. It turned out to be a valuable decision. The Redskins' running game never did as well again.

But, after the Redskins drove to the Dallas 42, Theismann was sacked by Randy White, his old buddy, for a loss of six yards.

After Washington scored to come within three in the second period, the Cowboys needed only 32 seconds for their last drive. White set up the Redskins' defense with a short "out" to Renfro for six yards before the 55-yarder, which Renfro caught at the Washington 29 and ran untouched into the end zone.

"It was an incredible call," said Danny White of Coach Tom Landry's decision to call the long pass with the Redskins in nickel coverage.

The demise of the Redskins in the third quarter can be charted by turnovers:

*Theismann is intercepted by Walls at the Washington 47; Septien kicks a 39-yard field goal for a 20-7 lead.

*Next possession, Rogers fumbles at the Washington 40; Septien kicks a 43-yard field goal.

*Next possession, first play, Theismann is intercepted by Fellows at the Washington 43. Fellows returns 29 yards to the Redskins 14, Three plays later, Dorsett runs nine yards for a touchdown and a 30-7 lead with 7:51 left in the third quarter.

*The misery continues when Theismann is intercepted a third time in the quarter by Bates near midfield, but this time, Dallas merely punts.

Whew.

What's more, Riggins strained his right hamstring and did not play again until the final minutes of the quarter. It was unknown how serious it was, although he said, "I could have played in goal-line or short-yardage situations, but we didn't have any."

He did return for a two-yard gain on third and one at the Washington 40, but that drive ended with Bates' interception three plays later.

The interceptions didn't end when the quarter did. With 9:29 to play, Scott, who failed to catch a pass that hit his hands late in the third quarter, returned an interception 26 yards to increase Dallas' lead to 37-7.

But there was hope in the Redskins locker room.

"We play them again in our place later this year," May said, "and maybe we'll get some of those late fumble calls and penalties going our way then."