Coach Joe Gibbs says that at various times the last several years he has mentally replayed almost every opening game his Washington Redskins have played. Nine of them. Six losses.

He has revisited 1981 when a solid halftime lead disappeared against the Cowboys and 1985 when Joe Theismann threw five interceptions and 1988 when New York's Jim Burt rumbled into the end zone with a fumble recovery.

He certainly remembers last season when another fourth-quarter lead melted as Raul Allegre kicked a pair of field goals and the Giants left RFK Stadium with a 27-24 victory.

Gibbs said few days have passed when he hasn't wondered why his teams have done so poorly on opening day and so well the rest of the time. He has wondered about the length of training camp, the intensity of that first week of work and a dozen other things. He has closed practice, opened it, closed it again. He has screamed, he has smiled.

He also has considered the schedule. The Redskins have opened against the Giants and Eagles in nationally televised games the last four years, and before that, had the then-powerful Cowboys three times.

"Who you play is part of it," he said this week when asked for perhaps the thousandth time about the problems of winning the first game. "It's not just one thing. But if I knew exactly what it was, I'd fix it."

This afternoon, as the NFL begins the 1990 season with the San Francisco 49ers trying for an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl ring, the Raiders still undecided on where to call home and five teams welcoming new coaches onto the job, the Redskins again will be trying to shake their opening-day headache when the Phoenix Cardinals come to RFK Stadium for a 1 p.m. game.

This isn't the Eagles or Giants. The Cardinals are young and inexperienced and coming off a preseason in which they went 0-4 and were outscored, 103-39.

Former Redskins assistant Joe Bugel has preached patience, and that may be a necessity for a team that has a young quarterback (Timm Rosenbach), three rookie running backs and a big, young offensive line that allowed 20 sacks in four preseason games.

That offense hasn't been on the field a lot this summer because the defense gave up nine scoring drives of at least 60 yards, four of them 80 yards or longer. The Cardinals were scorched for an average of 343 yards per game and opponents converted 31 of 53 third-down plays.

The Redskins were an 11 1/2-point favorite most of the week and Gibbs has warned his team more than once that being heavy favorites doesn't always correlate into being big winners.

"I don't think I have to remind them," he said. "The experts said we weren't going to have any problems with the Cowboys {last season}. I may mention that if it comes up."

What he has mentioned is that the Redskins are capable of losing this game, that the Cardinals have more Pro Bowlers, a couple of special-teams stars and a game-breaking wide receiver the Redskins already know -- Roy Green.

What he may not have mentioned is how important winning the game is. The Redskins play the Cardinals twice, the Cowboys once and the 49ers in the first four games before beginning a grinding five-week stretch when they play the Giants and Eagles four times.

The Redskins didn't play well within their division (4-4) or at RFK Stadium (4-4) last season, and as a result, were out of the playoffs a second straight season.

"It's just line up and play football," Redskins tackle Darryl Grant said. "That's no cliche'. We know we're a good team, but it doesn't mean anything if you don't go out and play like one. You can't make mental errors and you have to hit some big plays. I personally think it's going to be interesting and exciting."

Gibbs appears to have created an interesting blend of personalities that, more than ever before, reflect his own personality. Gone is Dexter Manley, one of the last of the big-time talkers.

Instead, the Redskins have Monte Coleman and Grant and Russ Grimm, players who one team official calls "quiet leaders. They're not rah-rah guys, but they're very professional. They've been to the Super Bowl. They know what you have to do to win."

Or, as Grant said: "I've seen rah-rah guys not play up to their potential once they stopped yelling and go on the field. We have emotional players. Wilber Marshall is emotional. But we have guys who know you have to take care of business. What we don't do is jump up and down and show people up after we make a big play. If that's emotional, then, no, we're not emotional. You don't have to jump up 10 feet in the air to play with emotion."

After an offseason when the Redskins added nine new players -- five Plan B free agents, two draft picks, one veteran free agent and one trade -- they believe they may be better for several reasons.

Quarterback Mark Rypien is a year older and a year more qualified to orchestrate perhaps the league's most talented offense; the special teams have added a couple of impact players, especially wide receiver Walter Stanley, who led the NFL in punt returns last season; and the Redskins still have an array of offensive weapons, from receivers Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders to running backs Earnest Byner and Gerald Riggs to a pair of new faces. Jimmie Johnson has taken over as the starting H-back and is coming off a tremendous camp when he looked so good that Gibbs once compared him to Kellen Winslow and other dominating tight ends.

The Redskins also have welcomed back often-injured Kelvin Bryant, who will be used strictly as a third-down back.

"When he's healthy," Gibbs said, "he's the best I've ever seen in that role."

Defensive, young pass rushers Fred Stokes and Tracy Rocker are lining up beside veterans Charles Mann, Markus Koch and Grant. Top draft choice Andre Collins won a starting job at outside linebacker and a thin secondary could be solid if cornerback Brian Davis finally stays healthy an entire year.

A lot of eyes will be focused on Collins this afternoon and he has been warned about what might be waiting for him.

"He's going to be tested," Marshall said. "Teams are going to see what he's made of and he has to be ready. He's young and he's still learning. He's good now, but he's not as good as he's going to be."

Collins, five weeks after saying everything "is kind of foggy," has settled into his new position nicely.

"I think I know what I'm doing," he said. "I'm to the point where I can react. I don't have to stop and think about everything. If I can pick up that split second, I think I'll be okay."

Bugel won't be the only coach seeing his former team this afternoon. The Houston Oilers and their new coach, Jack Pardee, will be in Atlanta to face ex-Oilers coach Jerry Glanville and his new team, the Falcons.

While Bugel and Bruce Coslet of the Jets will be making their coaching debuts, Miami's Don Shula will be beginning his 28th year as an NFL head coach and Chuck Noll will be starting his 22nd year as coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Redskins may be home in time to watch their top division opponents, the Giants and Eagles, play each other at the Meadowlands.

Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor will play after just three practices after ending a two-month holdout by signing a three-year, $4.5-million contract. The Eagles have beaten the Giants four straight times.