The Redskins may have lost this one 10 minutes before it began, when Joe Bugel poked his head around a corner in the dressing room and announced a major shakeup in the Hog Pen. Bugel pointed to Russ Grimm and said: "You'll start at left tackle; Bosco (Jeff Bostic) will go at left guard."

"The wheels started turning after that," said Grimm, grimly.

Soon, the wheels started going wobbly, then they slipped completely off -- and the offense misplaced the end zone once again.

When healthy and inspired, the Redskins might not be as good as the Giants this season. Expecting Joe Jacoby and Art Monk to play yesterday, the oddsmakers still had Washington the underdog by two points.

The Giants, after all, have the top-rated defense in the NFL. Statistically, they are lots better than the Eagles and Bears, who already had stuffed lots of humility into the Washington offense the last month.

So there at least were decent alibis after the 17-3 loss. And some familiar questions: Is Calvin Muhammad living down to the level that cost just a fourth-round draft choice last year? How hard is Al Davis laughing now that Malcolm Barnwell remains a non-factor? Do the Redskins wish they had an experienced backup to give Joe Theismann some relief?

Jacoby's inability to play meant that Grimm would be at a position he almost never had manned other than during emergency drills in practice. Bostic was playing not only an unfamiliar position but also for the first time in nearly a year.

Little wonder Coach Joe Gibbs was hoping for baseball numbers: "something like maybe 7-7 that we could pull out at the end."

Gibbs wanted the defense to win -- and it nearly did, with three interceptions. The problem was that Curtis Jordan, Vernon Dean and Tony Peters each had as many catches as Muhammad -- and one more than Barnwell.

At times, it seemed that Theismann's favorite target was the Giants' Terry Kinard. Three times, he had the ball in his hands; twice, it was scored: error 43.

If the game was not lost 10 minutes or so before the opening kickoff, it might have been lost 10 minutes or so thereafter. Theismann completed a 55-yard pass to the tough and clever Gary Clark for first down at the Giants' 12.

Two plays later, the Redskins had been very lucky and very unlucky. Theismann tried a pass to Clark that was tipped, but fell harmlessly to the turf. He tried another pass to Clark that again was tipped, but into the hands of New York's Herb Welch for a touchback.

"Why do those tips always bounce up instead of down?" Theismann asked.

There were going to be only so many times the Redskins could kick Lawrence Taylor and the other Giants in the ankle and get away with it.

Later, it developed, every time Washington got reasonably close to the end zone, the Giants were the ones feeling fine.

Pick a period, any period, and Theismann either was staring at the sky, after being sacked, or hurrying a pass with good intentions that often ended with sorry results.

"There's a lot of space out there (at tackle)," Grimm said. "If I had to make a living in this league as a tackle, I don't think I'd make it.

"Also, once in a while, I was playing right guard. And some at (his natural position) left guard. Jumping back and forth."

In his first action since that serious knee injury 365 days ago, Bostic had planned a day as a backup. "I played right guard in college," he said, "so this was a new experience and a different position. All I could do was play hard."

Playing hard, the line still allowed seven sacks. It also was equal-opportunity sacking, for nearly every blocker all but had his name on Theismann's postgame welts.

Once, Leonard Marshall breezed by Bostic and belted Theismann. Another time, Taylor flew around an extra blocker, John Riggins. For variety, Taylor sailed through a hole between right guard Ken Huff and right tackle Mark May.

"Put it this way," said Grimm, whose play the Giants praised. "It was an experience."

One of Theismann's better passes was the one to Muhammad for 14 yards. He was back-pedaling at the time and still managed a fairly potent peg.

"It was strange being able to see eye-to-eye with two guys over there," Theismann said of the improvised left side of his line. "Usually, there's just this one big shadow (cast by Jacoby)."

Theismann was shaking with fury when an improvised dash away from Giants behind the line ended with an interception by -- who else? -- Kinard in the end zone. Gibbs said Muhammad and Theismann read each other wrong. Theismann said he underthrew the pass but hoped Muhammad would "come back on it."

Theismann seemed to be yelling at anyone close when he arrived at the sideline. Muhammad happened to be nearby, Theismann was asked if he had been pointing a finger with his voice. Absolutely not, Theismann insisted, then added: "I refuse to let you drive a wedge in this team."

Gibbs said he expected that sort of emotion "from every good one. You've gotta have fire in your heart." He walked away, once more trying to figure a way to fire up a scoreboard.