Even with his headset removed late yesterday evening, Joe Gibbs gave the impression that he had directed some sort of failed cosmic mission: He had pushed all the buttons but had gotten no liftoff.

The first button he pushed called for an opening Redskins drive to a score, but all the coach got was a fizzle -- no points. This was "really disheartening," he said.

"It's happened to us several times this year: We come away without points inside the 20. It's something you can't afford to do against a good football team."

Then, too, he said, there were "four big penalties" early in the game, "which is hard for me to understand. I think we're the least-penalized team in the league. And these were on running plays, too."

And, of course, quarterback Joe Theismann was often on the run, if not for his life, at least to avoid the unpleasant clutches of, especially, big Jim Jeffcoat. The assignment of blocking Jeffcoat had fallen to reserve Dan McQuaid, who, at 6 feet 7, 278 pounds has the size but until now, in his first full year, had not experienced anything like the 6-foot-5, 263-pound defensive end who crashed through for five sacks.

Said Gibbs of Theismann: "I think Joe was fighting his guts out."

And of McQuaid: "I think Dan was fighting his heart out."

McQuaid put it this way: "He just bull-rushed me. I just couldn't seem to get under him. I had a bad day. I'm not very happy with the way I played."

With Jeffcoat and Ed (Too Tall) Jones charging furiously and hemming Theismann in -- the three of them were together so much they looked like a dance routine -- the Redskins had their short passing game shortcircuited.

"They took away our hitch game," said Gibbs. "Their defensive ends were batting the ball down."

So Gibbs pushed another button -- four wide receivers.

Talk about star wars. The Redskins would fire all these burners off the line of scrimmage. To what end? More fizzle.

Gibbs said he thought the Redskins would be able to "run and pass" with all those receivers. "We wanted to try to split 'em out," he said. But the Dallas defense was no less effective, no matter how many receivers lined up for the Redskins. "We couldn't get that done," Gibbs said.

Nor could they stop Tony Dorsett. He darted and squirmed the whole game, but the most damaging of his deeds was a straight dash for the Redskins goal line, during which he took a perfectly thrown pass from Danny White and left linebacker Monte Coleman pointing in his direction. The play covered 48 yards, and Coleman was no match in the chase.

"It was my man, and I was beaten on the play," said Coleman.

Coleman, who had been out with a strained hamstring, said his right leg was injured again -- someone kicked him -- near the end of the first half, and it "did stiffen up some.

"Because of the injury," he added, "I didn't have the power to push off to try to catch him."

But Coleman said the injury wasn't an excuse, and it was doubtful that even if he had been 100 percent, he could have stayed with the fleet Dorsett.

"It was a very good call by the offense," Coleman said.

It came down to Gibbs pushing some more buttons.

He tried George Rogers -- "We took a shot on George" -- to open the second half. Nothing there, either.

Another button. With the Redskins trailing by the eventual final score, 13-7, and facing fourth and inches near their 21-yard line, 7:12 to play, Gibbs elected to take a timeout and then go for the first down. Disaster was delayed when John Riggins was summoned from the bench and ran for the first down. Of the gamble, Gibbs said, "I had the feeling then we had to have a great drive. It seemed at first we were two yards short, but then they measured and came up with six inches. I said, hey, we got to go for it. Take our shot and go for it."

The Redskins stalled anyway, and the last button produced a clank. Gibbs was looking for Riggins late in the game. "I wanted to put him in the last drive," Gibbs said, "but he was stiff by then. He had sat over there a long time."

So now what does he tell the players? Gibbs was asked.

"We have to find a way to get into the playoffs. It's going to take just about every game."

"Somehow, some way," said Theismann, "we got to make it happen."

But Curtis Jordan made it sound precarious. "We're hanging on the edge now," he said.

And a disappointed fan in the Metro made it sound even worse. "The party's over," he sang.