The very fabric of the Washington Redskins team that appeared in the Super Bowl twice in the last three years appears to have come apart at the seams.

Today, the Chicago Bears scored 31 points in the second quarter when injury turned the Redskins' punting game into a circus show and went on to post a 45-10 victory before 63,708 at Soldier Field.

It was the Redskins' most lopsided loss since the New York Giants beat them, 53-0, in 1961.

The facts are deflating to the Redskins. They are 1-3 and trail Dallas, St. Louis and the Giants by two games in the NFC East.

The games are getting ugly, too: Dallas beat the Redskins by 30 points three weeks ago, the Bears won by 35 today. The Redskins' offense has produced only five touchdowns in four games. Quarterback Joe Theismann has thrown two scoring passes and nine interceptions. The kick coverage team apparently can't stop anybody.

"Right now, we're desperate men," safety Curtis Jordan said.

"We don't have any genuine leaders," defensive tackle Mark May said. "We lost a lot of leadership last year. George Starke was old, but he was loose in the locker room. Tony McGee and Mark Murphy were leaders. No one has stepped forward to become a leader. If we don't get some camaraderie back soon, this may be 1981 (0-5 start to an 8-8 season) all over again."

"You almost wonder," guard Russ Grimm said, "can it get any worse?"

How strange was this game? Fullback John Riggins failed twice on fourth-and-one plays. The Bears (4-0) won even though running back Walter Payton ran only seven times for six yards and even though wide receiver Willie Gault didn't catch a pass.

And how about quarterbacks Theismann and Jay Schroeder becoming punters for a day?

It all happened so fast. The Redskins led, 10-0, early in the second quarter. "I thought we were back in town. The old charge was back," Jordan said.

It seemed like 1982-83, the two Super Bowl seasons, again. Riggins was pounding the run and had a seven-yard touchdown. Theismann hit the short passes to offset blitzes. The defense kept the Bears' offense unproductive.

Early in the second quarter, though, the Bears' Gault sent a lightning bolt through Redskins hearts -- a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs termed "one of the most devastating plays I've ever seen in football."

The play was especially devastating because punter Jeff Hayes, who also handles kickoffs, suffered a partial tear of his quadriceps (thigh) muscle just as he kicked toward Gault.

The consequences of Hayes' injury were greater than anyone could have expected: 10 minutes and 24 seconds later, the Redskins' punt game was a bust and the Bears led, 28-10.

"My wife is at home expecting a baby any minute. She probably went into labor when she saw that kickoff return," said Hayes, out two to six weeks. (General Manager Bobby Beathard said the Redskins will give a tryout Monday to former Bears punter Dave Finzer.)

"As soon as I saw Jeff was hurt, I knew we were in big trouble," Jordan said, "I thought, 'My God, we never even had anybody practice at punter this season.' I guess you never visualize something like that happening."

Grimm noted, "Even after (Gault's return), we were still up, 10-7."

Indeed, today provided Exhibit A of how a kickoff return can change a football game.

After Gault's return and Hayes' injury, the Redskins' offense stalled and Theismann (last punt: once in 1971 in the Canadian Football League) tried to punt. His kick went one yard, shanked out of bounds at the Washington 14.

Bears quarterback Jim McMahon went right for the jugular and threw a 14-yard scoring pass to Dennis McKinnon and it was 14-10, Bears, and about to get a whole lot worse for Washington.

On the next series, Chicago defensive end Richard Dent forced a Theismann fumble that the Bears recovered at the Washington 25. McMahon exploited an all-out blitz soon thereafter for a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Emery Moorehead and it was 21-10.

Less than two minutes later, Redskins reserve Schroeder (last punt: 10 or so times during preseason practices) tried and shanked a 22-yard punt that went out of bounds at the Redskins 26. (Coaches said Theismann made the first punt because he was already loose.)

Payton then made a gadget play work. He threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to McMahon and it was 28-10 with 4:27 still left in the half. It became 31-10 at halftime even though the Redskins had outgained the Bears, 166 yards to 117.

Two Redskins rookies made costly blunders during the 24-play cave-in. Wide receiver Gary Clark let a third-down pass from Theismann bounce off his chest, ruining a seemingly certain first down, and bringing on Schroeder's 22-yard punt.

Rookie defensive tackle Dean Hamel ruined a 36-yard kickoff return by Ken Jenkins when he was cited for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for shoving an official. Hamel said he was trying to reach a Bears player he said hit him after the play.

"If I knew it was the referee there," Hamel said, "I wouldn't have done it . . . "

The second half brought superior punting by Schroeder (he finished with a 33-yard average), but little else for the Redskins.

With six minutes to play, Theismann was left to chase cornerback Mike Richardson after he stole an interception from the arms of tight end Clint Didier and made a 90-yard return to the Redskins' one.

The Bears scored a touchdown two plays later for the game's final points and Richardson later said, oddly enough, "I think we can go to the Super Bowl -- maybe even farther."

Gibbs said, "Things are happening to the Redskins. Why? It doesn't matter because they are happening. We've got to find a way to straighten things out."

History doesn't help the Redskins. Since the 16-game NFL schedule was begun in 1978, 39 teams have started the season with 1-3 records. Only three of them revived to make the playoffs.

"Nothing is going right," linebacker Neal Olkewicz said. "Maybe we have to lower our expectations from the playoffs to just winning a game."

The Redskins' kickoff coverage team is allowing 37 yards per return. "That's the worst in the league and we didn't help ourselves today," Wayne Sevier, special teams coach, said.

"Nothing was wrong with our scheme," special teams captain Pete Cronan said of the defense on Gault's return. "The ball was kicked great. Coverage was great. Gault's just got that kind of speed."

On one side, the Bears were proud to point out that Payton may have rushed for only six yards (sixth worst in his career), but he also threw for one touchdown, caught another touchdown pass (33-yarder in the third quarter) and threw the key block on blitzing safety Tony Peters on the scoring pass to Moorehead.

"The best thing about that," linebacker Mike Singletary said about Payton's six yards and Gault's zero receptions, "is that we're finding out and the teams around the league are finding out that it is no longer Walter left and Walter right. We can attack you in a lot of ways and if we want to, we can still go with Walter left and Walter right."

Some Redskins admitted that Gault's touchdown return was so deflating, they didn't even know that Hayes had been hurt. Grimm said he was shocked when he saw a one-yard punt and looked back from his spot on the sideline only to realize that Theismann had kicked it.

A reporter asked May about Theismann's one-yard punt. "You mean Hayes didn't kick that?" May said. "I didn't even know."

At least Cronan remains the optimist. As the start of this season begins to appear more and more like 1981's 0-5, Cronan said, "If it's back to 1981, that's good for us because then we have a lot of good things to look forward to."