The Washington Redskins coaching staff convened at 6 a.m. yesterday to view the carnage. Yes, before sunrise. The first order of business? Grade film and find the culprits.

Some transgressions are just misdemeanors to coaches; others are unforgivable felonies. A punt should never be blocked at the goal line (except by your team). A kickoff should never be run back for a touchdown (unless you diagrammed it that way). And an extra point is The Automatic.

As a nation of Monday night viewers knows, the Redskins committed all three cardinal sins. Besides that, Washington looked miserable at returning kickoffs (an 18-yard average) and never sprang a quality return on five Rams punts. Three other Steve Cox punts (one after a bouncing Jeff Bostic snap) barely escaped; it was just a matter of time. Two penalties on kickoffs cost 37 yards.

"You score points on offense. And you win games on defense," Gibbs said after the game. "But you win championships with special teams."

Gibbs may be exaggerating, but he makes his point. Provided you have a top offense and defense, special teams can be the final piece of the puzzle that puts a pro team over the top. All three Redskins teams that reached a Super Bowl had fabulous all-around kicking games.

Remember head-busting Rusty Tillman and wild Jon Jaqua; Eddie Brown in the mud and Pete Cronan, the Barbarian; MVP Mark Moseley and all-pro Mike Nelms; Greg Williams and Otis Wonsley, the human bowling ball; tall Dallas Hickman and the great Bill Malinchak, brought out of retirement by George Allen just to resume blocking punts.

Many fans are obsessed with Redskins injuries in the offensive line or high visibility issues like Doug Williams vs. Jay Schroeder at quarterback, George Rogers vs. Kelvin Bryant at running back or Rich Milot vs. Neal Olkewicz at middle linebacker.

None of these touchy subjects has been as central to the Redskins' three defeats this year as the kicking game. That one-point loss to Atlanta hinged on a missed extra point. And the special teams were a headache in a narrow loss to Philadelphia, too.

"We'll revamp if we have to. I'll do a major overhaul if we need it. I'm not afraid to do it {10 games into the season}," Gibbs said after this 30-26 loss. "Is the problem structural in what we're doing or is it personnel? We're not playing well in any area {of special teams} right now. It looks like it may be time for major changes . . . We got a problem. All I know how to do is work on it until it goes away."

Stage one, instituted yesterday: Bring in a new long-snapper and summon Paul Lanham, special teams guru in the George Allen era, as an emergency consultant.

"We have enough problems, but special teams, in particular, are just killing us," Gibbs said, analyzing his Thanksgiving week problem perfectly. "We worked super hard last week on punt protection and kickoffs, but obviously we don't have that solved."

At one level, the Redskins' problems can be addressed very specifically. "I was too eager. I got there too quick," said kicker Ali Haji-Sheikh. "Things didn't look right when I got there. It was my fault for being early. When that happens, you don't follow through. Every extra point I've missed over the last four years has been like that -- hit the right post."

"My job's on the line, no doubt about it," said punter Cox, who has always been a slow foot but, until the last month, compensated with titanic distance. "You never see a punt blocked, because all you're looking at is the ball. But it's not a pleasant sound when you hear two thumps, one right after the other.

"We've got to start contributing to the team instead of hurting it. We {kicking teams} gave up 13 points tonight."

"When things go bad, they go bad big time. We gave them an early Christmas present -- three touchdowns," said Williams, including in the debacle his own fumble on a blind-side sack which was run in for a touchdown. "We've got to work hard this week and forget about the turkey."

A week won't do it.

The Redskins special teams started deteriorating when Joe Theismann, a superb holder, was hurt and Moseley immediately went into a slump that eventually led to his retirement. Place kicking has been a nightmare ever since. Ten botched PATs in two years? Beyond belief. The Redskins are lucky to have Haji-Sheikh, because it's hard to find a half-decent kicker in midseason; but they'll welcome injured Jess Atkinson when he can return in a couple of weeks.

Other problems will be harder to solve. In recent years, the Redskins have searched for quality athletes at four vital and vulnerable spots -- tight end, linebacker, defensive back and running back. Excellent physical specimens such as Todd Bowles, Reggie Branch, Keith Griffin, Alvin Walton, Barry Wilburn, Ravin Caldwell, Kurt Gouveia, Terry Orr, Joe Caravello and others have made the team.

However, many special teams players -- the guys who combine speed, size and a taste for violence -- also tend to play exactly these positions. In trying to build more physically gifted offensive and defensive units, the Redskins have necessarily sacrificed the veteran players like Wonsley, Cronan and Larry Kubin who knew they stayed in the NFL because of their daredevil tendencies.

Also, as athletic players like Dexter Manley, Charles Mann, Monte Coleman, Darrell Green, Mel Kaufman and Gary Clark evolved into starters, they were too valuable for wedge busting, punt covering or kick returning.

So, the mystique of the special teams went from reality to lip service. When you've got a shot at being a starting safety, how can covering a kick be your life's obsession?

The final straw came when special teams coach Wayne Sevier decided to go back home to San Diego to coach with the Chargers after the 1986 season. In Chuck Banker, the Redskins got a good man to replace him. But change brings uncertainty and a period of adjustment. For example, Sevier used man-to-man punt blocking; Banker prefers zone blocking. The zone failed on Monday night. A mere straw -- like the one that broke the camel's back.

A new coach. A strike. Young players without special teams passion. A slow punter. A castoff place kicker with shaky confidence. No home run kick returner. A struggling long snapper. A holder without Theismann's nimbleness.

Put it all together and what have you got? Problems.

The Redskins' entire kicking game has become a shambles. If it isn't shored up greatly between Thanksgiving and Christmas, any thoughts of a Super Bowl visit are a pipe dream.