Early in the week, Atlanta Falcons Coach Dan Henning gathered his team for a lecture, what was perceived by his players as the first good chewing-out of the 1985 season.

"We're getting a good effort, and we're coming close, but that's not good enough," Henning said. "We've got to go one step higher."

Today, the Falcons did not get a good effort. They did not come close. They did not go one step higher.

They lost, 44-10, to the Washington Redskins.

Joe Gibbs didn't do his former assistant coach any favors. The Redskins inflicted the Falcons' worst loss since they fell, 59-0, to the Los Angeles Rams in 1976. Henning's Falcons have fallen to 1-8 and are 12-29 since he became head coach in 1983. His contract expires this year. Consider what team owner Rankin Smith Sr. said before the season: "If we go 4-12 again, the coach is probably going to get fired."

Henning will be fortunate if the Falcons can duplicate that 4-12 mark. Still ahead on the schedule are the Chicago Bears, the Rams and the Los Angeles Raiders.

The Falcons were pointing to the Redskins game as a turning point.

"We honestly thought we were going to win this game," said tackle Brett Miller. "Everybody felt good. Nobody expected this. It's embarrassing."

The way the Falcons lost to the Redskins was embarrassing. They trailed by 31-3 at halftime. In seven previous losses, the Falcons either had the lead or were seven or fewer points behind at halftime.

"Until now, it seemed like we were coming together," said defensive tackle Mike Pitts. "We played bad. Our worst game. Can't get any worse than that."

Pitts was part of a unit that had allowed 909 yards rushing in eight games. The Redskins got more than one-third of that total with 307 yards, erasing an opponents' record (299 yards) against the Falcons that had been established in 1966, the franchise's first year.

"I'm shocked," said rookie defensive end Mike Gann. "We lost our confidence to stop the run."

The other defensive end, Rick Bryan, said, "We knew what they were going to do and we couldn't stop it. They just let you go where you want to go, then they block you that way and let the backs find the hole. The backs found the hole."

Henning had few words to describe the loss, except to say, "They obviously blocked better than we tackled."

The Falcons coach partook in the loss with a back-breaking decision in the second quarter. On fourth down and one at the Falcons' 29, with the Redskins leading, 10-3, he ordered a fake punt. Rick Donnelly, the punter, was tackled for a five-yard loss and the Redskins quickly went in for a score. The romp was on.

"We went for it because we wanted to maintain possession of the ball," explained Henning. "We didn't execute on the play. We let a player come through and the punter did not run like we expected. We had told the players early in the week we would play this game different."

That was different. Gibbs tried defending Henning's decision, but even that came out sounding funny. "In the situation Atlanta's in, you have to try things," said Gibbs. "I thought that was a good call."

Joe Washington, the former Redskins back now with the Falcons, had an analogy.

"It's like jumping a ravine," he said of the fake punt. "If you make it, fine. If you don't, you go to the bottom."

The Falcons made it -- to the bottom.