Last football season, when the Atlanta Falcons were leading the league in paternity suits (seven), one of their wives decided to look on the bright side. "We may not be good," she said, "but at least we're fertile."

Analogously, the Redskins may not seem to be too potent at the moment. But, by Channel 4 reporter Barbara Harrison's count, 13 of their wives are pregnant.

Looking on the bright side is hard for Washington, especially when it comes to football. Which just may be the problem. Everyone knows the city is suffering from the team. But has anybody considered the possibility that the team may be suffering from the city?

Over a recent 11-day span, the Redskins lost, won and lost again, twirling their manic-depressive followers from melancholia to the Super Bowl and back. No wonder management patches and prays. When so much of the town's mood is fixed on a Sunday victory, any kind of Sunday victory, the time to step back and plan for tomorrow is never. "The future is now," George Allen decreed for eternity. The reckoning on its way -- just beginning to arrive -- is a dilly.

Another team that thought itself immune to lulls, the Dallas Cowboys, started to tumble in 1981. By a process of solid reasoning, the Cowboys concluded Joe Montana threw "a lucky pass" to Dwight Clark. The silver and blue had come so close to another Super Bowl. Certainly they would be back in the playoffs. What reason was there to discard or draw? So, they elected to play the same hand again -- and again -- and again.

Back from oblivion, Dallas beat the Redskins on Thanksgiving, 27-17. It was the Cowboys' sixth victory in two years, a third of them coming against Washington. Not since college days had Coach Jimmy Johnson smiled two weeks in succession.

To say these teams are changing places would be an exaggeration, although just a slight one. Nobody who viewed the game -- and the whole country watched it -- could have missed at least the suggestion of an ascending team and a descending one.

Joe Gibbs is a terrific coach, one of the best two or three in football. He has an inventive staff. They simply have run out of players. Even a cursory look at the draft logs shows why.

1990: 1. Traded to Atlanta for RB Gerald Riggs.

1989: 1. Awarded to Chicago as compensation for LB Wilber Marshall. 2. Traded to Atlanta for Riggs.

1988: 1. To Chicago for Marshall.

1987: 1. To San Francisco . . .

1986: 1. To Atlanta . . .

1985: 1. To New Orleans . . .

1984: 1. To New York Giants . . .

The Redskins bought time on the layaway plan, and the bill finally is due. As a matter of fact, they have been ducking the collection agency for two years. They still seem to consider it an accident or aberration that the playoffs have snubbed them since 1987. The comeback is in the mail.

Largely by the grace of an injury to Detroit quarterback Rodney Peete is Washington 6-5 rather than 5-6. When early returns from the Lions game were flowing into other broadcasts, former San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh remarked over NBC that Detroit's run-and-shoot style was a good scheme against the Redskins. "Washington has become a slow team," he said.

In a business where an inch can separate the great from the good, "slow" is a relative term. But the team speed of the Redskins obviously is down. Jeff Bostic, Monte Coleman, Darryl Grant, Russ Grimm, Joe Jacoby, Mark May, Art Monk and Don Warren all are 10-, 11- or 12-year men.

They remain admirable figures, every one of them. Jacoby has returned heroically on a reconstructed knee, but he is not the same old Jake. After 700 receptions, Monk continues to be a wonderment, just this side of the downfield threat he was once.

At 30, even cornerback Darrell Green is beginning to show up on radar screens, and his companions in the defensive backfield are positively pokey. Todd Bowles and Alvin Walton range from hard-nosed to wanton, but neither has happy feet. Poor Martin Mayhew is peppy but 5-foot-8.

Along the way, the personnel men have made mistakes. Recently dropped Brian Davis, their highest pick of 1987, has to go on that list. They also have made some hay. Earnest Byner for Mike Oliphant ranks with the grandest larcenies.

Marshall, that platinum linebacker, has not been the dominant player he was in Chicago. If it is true that he is hamstrung by the Redskins' system, it is also true that the financially satisfied seldom play as well, putt as well, write as well or sell as much insurance as the strugglers.

Up-and-down performances, the pattern Washington has begun, is the mark of an older team. As barometers go, the thumping in Philadelphia two weeks ago was somewhat less telling. That was the Redskins' third straight road game. As Cincinnati found out in Houston, this is the classic condition for an NFL killing.

At home, on their up days, the Redskins still might be able to trick the clock, the fans and themselves. Because the coming Miami, Chicago and Buffalo games are in RFK, the season isn't sealed. But the future is. The future is now. When the Pro Bowl players are elected in a few weeks, it will be hard for the rest of the league to think of a Redskin.