Some semblance of spine remains in the Giants, right? These are the wimps who have managed to slink out of town and still get away with calling themselves the New York Giants. These are the macho men who demean female reporters, the bumblers who have lost two of their last three games. They still have enough gumption today to beat the Steelers at home, in New Jersey, don't they?


As a favor to their beloved friends, the Redskins, the Cowboys will be inspired beyond human comprehension Sunday to beat the 49ers. To keep this mission of mercy fresh at all times, each Cowboy will tape a picture of Mark May to his helmet. In the final touch of hands before kickoff, Randy White will scream: "Let's win it for Theismann!"

And Santa will shave his head.

So the Redskins, very likely, will be at peace this Christmas, out of the playoffs unless the Giants fold by midafternoon today or the Cowboys, for no special reason, take their hearts along to San Francisco Sunday.

This assumes that the Redskins will not dunk their already slim chances in the Mississippi. Surprise! They are favored by fewer points, against a bad Cardinals team evidently in dissension, than the Giants and 49ers. Wouldn't all three teams losing rank down there with icy roads in Washington?

Whatever, some impressions solidified after 15 weeks will remain mostly unchanged whether the Redskins' season ends tonight or Sunday night, next week or next month.

The first holiday toast is to Joe Gibbs, for refusing to put a word on waivers: loyalty. For the players who have gone the extra mile for him over the years, the coach has sprinted two. This surely is one of the reasons his teams play so well late in the season. Veterans really do get the benefit of most doubts.

I'm a loyalty guy. I say anyone in any subjective line of work, such as the NFL, ought to be let go a season too late instead of a season too soon. The running attack had to reach bog stage before Gibbs turned it over to George Rogers; Joe Theismann's leg was broken before the coach broke faith with his quarterback; Mark Moseley will have to kick himself out of Gibbs' heart.

Once Gibbs goes bottom-line, once he decides transition is necessary at a position, the new fellow gets as much loyalty as he merits. Rogers fumbled three times last Sunday against the Bengals and John Riggins was pawing the sideline in anticipation. Most fans wanted Riggins. Some shouted that sentiment toward Gibbs, who stayed loyal to the new man.

Rogers ran 34 yards for the winning touchdown.

Usually, the replacements do well. So the next salute is to the scouts who find them and the assistant coaches who train them. For the most part, the rookies in the secondary have done well; Dean Hamel sometimes has been exceptional on the defensive line; no intern filled in for an experienced doctor any better than Raleigh McKenzie did for Russ Grimm during that emergency Sunday.

When Theismann was wheeled out of RFK Stadium against the Giants five games ago, I scribbled on a notepad: "Season finished." The team is 4-1 under Jay Schroeder which, considering his near-total lack of game experience, is a bit like some fresh-faced lieutenant charging onto the scene and saying to Custer on third-and-long: "I believe I can turn things around here."

In the enthusiasm for Schroeder, Theismann should be neither underestimated nor ignored. He almost always has accomplished what he set out to do in football, often against great odds. If he mends mentally as much as physically, for blitzes seemed to be getting him before Lawrence Taylor and Gary Reasons did, Gibbs will have two quality quarterbacks to choose from.

That also would be a tough loyalty test.

If 10-6 is not quite good enough for the postseason, weeping about fickle fortune should not last too long. The wild-card concept is a dumb idea in the first place. Before it was in fashion, in 1967, the Colts finished 11-1-2 and missed the playoffs. The 1939 Redskins were even more unlucky than the 1985 team might be, ending 8-2-1 and a game behind the Giants in the Eastern Division.

Should these Redskins find themselves out of the playoffs after the weekend, the actual time and place that determined that outcome would be Sept. 22 in RFK Stadium at about 3:27 p.m. In play-by-play shorthand, this was the crime: "Cunningham pass to E. Jackson on 14, carried in for touchdown."

That would be Randall Cunningham, the Eagles' version of Jay Schroeder, scrambling and dumping the ball to Earnest Jackson for the touchdown that assured a Redskins loss to a team sad enough to eventually get its coach fired. Of the Redskins' six losses, so far, that is the only one to a clearly inferior team.

The season drew focus on two players, Neal Olkewicz and Grimm, for the same reason. Middle linebacker Olkewicz has been underappreciated by almost everyone outside Redskin Park since he arrived as a free agent from Maryland seven years ago; Grimm is almost automatic as a Pro Bowl guard.

What they share is a passion for the game that would make them comfortable and popular on any team in any era. You could see Grimm wrapping himself with however much tape it took to allow his body to protect Sammy Baugh's; Olkewicz would enjoy sticking his beard, unprotected by a face bar, in Bronco Nagurski's chest.

Football is not much more complex than talented tough guys blotting out pain and punching a clock each Sunday. Gibbs adores them, and sees they stay around as long as possible.