It's the special teams. It's the passing game. It's lack of leadership. It's bad bounces. It's last December's playoff loss to the Bears. It's Theismann. It's Riggins. It's Gibbs. It's old age. It's fate.

Got a reason for what's happening to the Washington Redskins? Take a number.

"I'm puzzled," says owner Jack Kent Cooke.

"I'm constantly thinking, 'What are the problems?' " says Coach Joe Gibbs.

"Sure I worry," says General Manager Bobby Beathard. "It's a great concern until everything becomes fine, and there's no guarantee it will."

The last nine months, from Dec. 30, 1984 to today, have not been kind to the Redskins (1-3). In a period of time defined by the two miserable losses to Chicago -- one in the playoffs, one last Sunday -- you will find some of the craziest things that ever have happened to a relatively normal, stable football team:

John Riggins, the star running back, gave some unsolicited advice to a Supreme Court justice, snoozed on the floor during the vice president's speech and was arrested on a charge of being drunk in public. Although none of this seems to have had any effect on the field, it has been a huge distraction for the Redskins' hierarchy.

Tory Nixon, the top draft choice acquired after a trade for veteran Joe Washington, never panned out and was dumped at the last minute on San Francisco, where he is playing and playing pretty well. Another of Beathard's highly regarded prospects, kicker Tony Zendejas, also came and went. Lost in signing bonuses in one week: $350,000.

For the first time in five seasons, Gibbs said, he didn't see eye-to-eye with all his players. As a result, veteran free safety Mark Murphy was waived and wide receiver Charlie Brown was traded. Other veterans, among them kick returner Mike Nelms, offensive tackle George Starke and linebacker Pete Cronan, followed them out the door.

When the season started, it became anything but a refuge. Quarterback Joe Theismann, who says he "must be the most consistent player on the team," has perhaps been its most inconsistent, completing just 50.8 percent of his passes and throwing nine interceptions in four games, three of them losses. The once reliable special teams have allowed opponents 37.3 yards per kickoff return. Five new players have joined the 45-man roster in the last two weeks.

"You expect so much from this team," said defensive end Dexter Manley. "Before Joe Gibbs came here, they were the Deadskins. Then Coach Gibbs comes and we become the Redskins again. Well, you can only be up so long, you have to come down. Look at Larry Holmes . . . But the good news is we will come back. And soon."

Knowledgable football people around the nation, as well as those close to home, wonder if one of the problems might be changes the team has made. The Redskins, they say, seem to have become a team in transition, which is not surprising considering this was the National Football League's oldest team a year ago.

Sometimes, a team in transition doesn't win a whole lot, they add.

Theismann, who decided not to talk to reporters at Redskin Park this past week, spoke about the issue with St. Louis writers on a telephone conference call. The Redskins play the Cardinals at 9 p.m. Monday at RFK Stadium.

"A lot of guys are new here," he said. "This is a transition period . . . we're in search of an identity, we're trying to establish one. A lot of times, (identities) come through adversity. You wish it wouldn't have to be that way, but sometimes it is."

George Allen, who coached this team for seven years in the 1970s, wondered if the Redskins lost significant leadership when they released Murphy and Starke, "two solid citizens and leaders" who both played for Allen.

"Although Mark may have slowed down, you need that type of person in the secondary," Allen said by phone from Los Angeles.

Murphy, 30, skipped the team's May minicamp in a dispute over some guaranteed money and never was able to reconcile differences with Cooke and Gibbs.

Hank Stram, who won a Super Bowl as coach of the Kansas City Chiefs and broadcast the Redskins' 19-6 loss to Philadelphia two weeks ago for CBS-TV, said a coach has to be "open-minded and aggressive enough to make changes," but must watch that he doesn't release too many "key people.

"You just don't replace the intangibles," he said, adding he wasn't sure if the Redskins had done that.

Last week, after the Chicago loss, the issue of lost leadership became central to a discussion of the Redskins' problems. Offensive tackle Mark May, one of the most eloquent members of the team, said, "We don't have any genuine leaders. 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 . . . "

Gibbs vehemently disagrees that his team lacks leadership, preferring to say that a number of "the vocal guys" were "toward the end of their careers and left.

"A lot of leaders on this team may underestimate themselves," Gibbs said. "Production's first . . . these are the best 45. The producers are the guys who become your leaders. I think we have leaders . . . Our team is better off with the guys who are here."

To illustrate, Gibbs mentioned the six team captains, as voted by the players, from last year's 11-5 season: Theismann, Art Monk, Neal Olkewicz, Darryl Grant, Otis Wonsley and Greg Williams.

"All six are still here," Gibbs said.

Nelms, who played for the Redskins for five seasons before being released in August, says the switch from "guys who played in two Super Bowls to guys who never played in a playoff game in college" has been the difference in this team.

How about specifics? How about Joe Washington, the Redskins' oft-injured third-down back who was traded to Atlanta because he wanted to continue playing even though the Redskins were concerned about his knees?

Houston Oilers defensive backfield coach Ken Houston, a former Redskins all-pro, wondered if the Redskins didn't miss Washington more than they realize.

"Joe Washington got the big yardage when they needed it," Houston said.

Added Nelms, "Joe Washington had fire in his gut, and on third and long, he made the catch."

Washington's replacement, Keith Griffin, has drawn nothing but praise from Gibbs.

Stram, too, asked about the loss of Washington and Brown. He said the "only problem" with Theismann is "the receiving corps is different.

"They miss Charlie Brown, they miss Joe Washington a little bit," Stram said. "With the young people, the routine is not as sharp as it used to be. The great thing about them was when the ball was close by, they'd always catch it. All these things add up and make a tremendous difference."

But Gil Brandt, Dallas' vice president for personnel development, says he agrees with every trade the Redskins made. The Redskins acquired running back George Rogers the week before they got rid of Washington, he noted.

"If you had polled 27 people from outside, Rogers-Washington would have been a pretty good trade for the Redskins," he said. "I myself would have made every trade they made. Before the season started, people said those were good trades."

Other on-the-field problems include the inability to gobble up chunks of yards on first down, says Stram, and the turnover ratio, says Brandt. The Redskins have turned the ball over 15 times and have forced just three turnovers.

"That's the difference," Brandt said.

The difference doesn't seem to be based on talent. Almost everyone within the Redskins organization says this team has more of that than any other in Gibbs' five-year tenure.

But they add that the Redskins never have won on pure talent, but on a hell-bent attitude, an emotional pitch that seems to be missing this year. Beathard said that feeling was present in the first quarter of last weekend's 45-10 loss to Chicago, when the Redskins jumped to a 10-0 lead before they lost punter Jeff Hayes and turned to their quarterbacks for relief that was spelled D-I-S-A-S-T-E-R.

"That game had the most bizarre breaks I've ever seen," said free safety Curtis Jordan. "Maybe a lot of the breaks we've had here in the last three years have finally caught up with us."

Ah-ha. The fate theory. The idea that luck has finally caught up to the Redskins and dragged them down from behind.

Cronan, one of the emotional leaders who was released this past week, says these things are cyclical.

"If you look at the whole picture, if you look at the 0-5 record when Joe Gibbs arrived, you can see we've run full cycle," he said. "Here we are, five years later, and the Washington Redskins are struggling."

For how long, no one knows. Beathard believes that once the emotional level returns to normal, everything else may well follow. The rest of the league waits and watches, figuring the demise of the Redskins is not going to last long.

Buddy Ryan knows the Redskins very well. He is the Bears' defensive coordinator, the man responsible for much of the Redskins' misery last season, and this.

Ask him what he thinks of the future for the Redskins, and, very diplomatically, he answers: "They'll be in the playoffs.

"They're one of the better teams in football."