With all its twists and turns, this season has been like no other in the five-year relationship of the Washington Redskins' triumvirate.

Owner Jack Kent Cooke, General Manager Bobby Beathard and Coach Joe Gibbs have disagreed on which players to keep, which ones to play and how much to play them. They have cut veterans and then read of their ire in newspapers and magazines.

They have lost more games than they expected to lose with what they consider their most talented team. Now they face the possibility of a season without the playoffs for the first time since their first year together.

Gibbs says he and Beathard have had "real disagreement" occasionally concerning players. And Beathard was known to be none too thrilled when Cooke entered the lengthy, confusing negotiations with rookie Tory Nixon last summer. Cooke, both Gibbs and Beathard say, is a demanding, "hands-on" owner. Cooke agrees.

They like and respect one another. But they also argue -- especially during times of transition, which is to say, now. They say the magic that worked for two Super Bowls still is here; it's just being tested during this 8-6 season of change.

Yet there have been rumblings that the Redskins' Big Three might break up, that Beathard or perhaps Gibbs will leave soon. It's a situation that naturally prompts a look at the men who run the Redskins.

Their roles sound simple enough. Beathard provides Gibbs with players, and Gibbs decides which ones to keep. Cooke -- with the help of his son, John, the team's executive vice president -- watches and advises, but, according to all three, doesn't make personnel decisions.

Once, in 1952, Cooke got involved in the affairs of Joe Becker, the manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs minor league baseball team he owned. Finally, he fired Becker, but the team didn't get any better.

Cooke counts it as a lesson learned.

"He understands sports," Gibbs said. "He has the ability to say, 'I don't agree with what you're doing, I don't think it's right.' And in the end, he always says, 'But you do it the way you feel like you have to do it.' "

This season has been hard on Gibbs. "Without a doubt," it's been his toughest here, he said.

Some of his most difficult moments have come when he has let veterans go: free safety Mark Murphy, returner Mike Nelms, offensive tackle George Starke, to name a few, and later read or heard their criticism of the way they left the team.

"I realize people are hurt and say, 'The Redskins treated me wrong,' " Gibbs said. "Some of the guys had 10 or 12 or 15 years here; this was their home. I went to bat for those guys. I was the guy that said, 'I want them here,' and I was allowed to bring them back. I went the extra mile for those guys . . . and then they say some of the things they did.

"That's human nature, I gotta understand that. But that hurt me."

Gibbs is known for his loyalty, for sticking with players longer than Beathard or Cooke might want him to. There is nothing particularly surprising about this; coaches tend to be closest to the players they have chosen.

But even Gibbs wonders how much loyalty is too much.

"The things that have been said to me, said about us, none of it to my face -- that has hurt me," he said. "Obviously, I'm learning from it . . . I think I have to do a good job of deciding (who to bring back in the future)."

If there was ever a doubt that the decisions are Gibbs' to make, examine perhaps the most important move of the summer: his choice of Mark Moseley, 37, over Tony Zendejas, 25, for kicker. Zendejas received a $150,000 signing bonus; Moseley had no guarantees. It was widely believed that Zendejas had the job, but Gibbs didn't like what he saw in preseason games and practice, so Beathard traded Zendejas -- and Cooke's $150,000 -- to Houston for a fifth-round draft pick.

Within the organization, the Moseley decision is seen as proof that Gibbs -- not Beathard, not Cooke -- gets the player he wants.

"I've never been pressured once -- that's the great thing about what I've got. I can make those decisions," Gibbs said.

A week later, Nixon and another $200,000 was sent to San Francisco when Gibbs and his coaches decided the rookie cornerback wasn't as good as everyone thought he was. This choice was different; Nixon, who cost the Redskins a first-round pick in the 1986 draft, had missed more than two weeks of training camp in a contract holdout. At one point, Cooke joined the discussions, which is rare for him.

Only quarterback Joe Theismann, running back John Riggins and defensive tackle Dave Butz negotiate directly with Cooke. Beathard handles all the rest, often consulting Cooke throughout the negotiations. But Beathard receives ground rules from Cooke before he begins.

Cooke's only comment on losing $350,000 in signing bonuses in one week: "It's part of the procedure you follow in any business . . . At least it was a game try."

But he also said, smiling, "I bid $350,000 less for the L.A. Daily News." He bought the paper for $176 million this week.

Cooke, 73, has a reported net worth of more than $600 million, according to Forbes Magazine. The Redskins are worth an estimated $70 million to $80 million.

Yet there might be a not-so-subtle reminder next year of the lost bonuses of 1985: there likely will be no signing bonuses (or very small ones) on Redskins contracts, old and new.

There has been other fallout from the Nixon affair. One of the National Football League's favorite rumors -- Beathard is leaving for San Diego -- has popped up again. Beathard traces it to last summer.

"All I can figure is that came out when we went back and forth on the Tory Nixon thing, because it was like Mr. Cooke and I were having little fights," he said. "I think those kinds of things come out because people think Mr. Cooke and I are not getting along."

Are they?

"Yes," Beathard said. "Mr. Cooke has let Joe and me do it here . . . It's the best situation I've been in in football."

Beathard has one year left on his contract; Gibbs has four left on his. Earlier this season, one newspaper story out of Cleveland, of all places, had them both packing for the Chargers. They vigoriously denied it.

Beathard is the more likely one to leave. The word out of San Diego is that Beathard would be a top choice to become the Chargers' general manager if John Sanders, the present GM, leaves. Sanders is expected to stay at least another season.

Cooke said he plans to negotiate a new contract with Beathard before his old one expires.

"I'll do that invariably, as I do with all my top executives," Cooke said.

He doesn't expect to lose Beathard.

"When Bobby retires from football, he'll go to San Diego," Cooke said.

One could conjure up several reasons for Beathard to head west. He is from California; he loves the beach, warm weather, running and volleyball; his parents live in Oceanside, 30 miles north of San Diego; and he and his brother have invested in condominiums in Leucadia, south of Oceanside.

"Even when I worked in Miami (1972-78 with the Dolphins), people always asked me when I would go back to California," Beathard said. "Maybe people don't feel I fit into an Eastern image."

But he met every reason for leaving with one of his own for staying.

"We have been put in a position here, given so much to work with, that we can't blame anybody else for losing," Beathard said of the financial support and freedom he and Gibbs receive. "We have the best of everything, except that we don't have a beach."

For Gibbs, that doesn't seem to matter.

Cooke said he expects Gibbs to coach the Redskins "longer than Tom Landry will be with the Cowboys."

That's 25 years and counting.

"I can't imagine myself coaching anyplace else, ever," Gibbs said. "I can't. I don't think it'll ever happen. I don't want it to ever happen." He continued: "This is the happiest I've ever been, anyplace I've lived. I like the area the best of anyplace I've ever lived. My family loves it here. I never want to leave . . . I don't even care about traveling, really."

Gibbs and Beathard are not all that much alike: Gibbs is a 45-year-old straight arrow who sticks close to home; Beathard, a 48-year-old beach bum who travels the country looking for players to draft. Gibbs has joked that when he tries to get in touch with Beathard, he can never find him.

"He's off running a marathon or something," Gibbs said.

They consider their boundaries strictly defined. They allow no trespassing.

"We can neither one of us step in the other guy's area, because, if we did, it would be wrong and it would be the start of the end," said Gibbs. "We're gonna sink or swim on Bobby's intuition . . . sometimes there's real disagreement, but we always know where we stand."

"I give Joe both solicited and unsolicited advice," Beathard said. "What goes on on the field is Joe's decision, as it should be."

That's why Beathard shook his head when he announced Zendejas had been traded -- but didn't tell reporters what was on his mind.

Assistant General Manager Bobby Mitchell puts it simply: "Bobby knows the type of player Joe wants and needs. He wants good character people."

Gibbs is a religious man who doesn't swear or drink. He speaks of a "family" of 45 players and a dozen coaches. That's unusual talk in the NFL.

"You're not born into this family, you work your way into it," he said.

"A humane context to an inhumane business," is the description of the Gibbs philosophy by former Redskins linebacker Pete Cronan, cut earlier this season.

"Joe Gibbs is loyal to the people who perform for him," Cronan said. "Maybe that's catching up to him a little."

Some of his present and former players interviewed for this story don't see the Redskins as a family, but as a business. Gibbs said flat out that they are "wrong."

Mitchell has heard both arguments.

"Joe is sincere about it," Mitchell said. "He's a little different (from other coaches) in believing in the family thing. But those (Redskins) who have been around a while, especially on other teams, who have seen the other side, might say, 'Hey, what is this?' "

Gibbs said he knew that some coaches who eventually came to work for him here were "worried" about his personal emphasis on religion.

"They asked other coaches, 'Hey, was this gonna be a problem?' " Gibbs said.

Several years ago, Gibbs asked Cronan, a rather colorful pregame speaker, to clean up his language.

"I said, 'I don't think you should use the Lord's name in vain,' " Gibbs recalled. "But he still was as loud and ferocious as ever."

"It was a request of his and he was my boss, so who was I to argue?" Cronan said. "I certainly made an effort to avoid even bringing the good Lord into the room with me."

Gibbs said that was the only time in his career he said anything about a player's or coach's language. He also said he doesn't see a conflict between being deeply religious and coaching a down-and-dirty sport.

"Some of the most competitive people I've ever seen have been the most religious," he said.

There is a separation of power among the Redskins' Big Three, and it's physical as well as strategic. Gibbs works at Redskin Park near Dulles International Airport; Beathard works there, too, when he's not on the road. Cooke works 30 miles away, at his office in Middleburg, but visits Redskin Park once or twice a week. Of all his business ventures, the Redskins are his pride and joy.

Every month or so, Cooke, Beathard and Gibbs happen to run into each other at a practice. Otherwise, they talk on the phone.

Cooke's son, John, 44, runs the business side of the team from an office between Gibbs' and Beathard's at Redskin Park. He will take over from his father sometime, but don't ask when.

"There's only one other place I'm going to go on to and I have no intention of going there any time soon," Jack Kent Cooke said.

Cooke, who is kept informed of every trade and every big personnel move, doesn't mind it when his questions or opinions provoke Gibbs or Beathard, or when theirs provoke him.

"Disagreements are good," he said. "You don't want to have a bunch of 'yes' men around, do you?"