Old football players and old coaches, like the Washington Redskins and Joe Gibbs, run on pride, especially wounded pride. They have their Super Bowl rings, their memories and their scars. But they're not ready to retire yet. Just as their bodies start to turn sour, the game starts to taste especially sweet.

They want one more crazy January ride to make them feel young and wild and whole again. But what they need is something to get them through the next dull December week. They can cope with the Ultimate Game. It's the little ones, week to week, that drag them down to the reality of age and lost fire.

As he left the locker room on Sunday after the Redskins had finished one of the NFL season's most intimidating wins -- 42-20 over the supposedly superb Miami Dolphins -- center Jeff Bostic said, "I'm not reading any newspaper articles this week, except the bad ones. None of this nice stuff. It just undermines us. Like Joe Bugel says, people who tell you that you're great are communists."

Across the clubhouse, Gibbs plucked up the same theme. "Last week, somebody said we were too old to be consistent every week," he said. "You guys stay on that one."

The Redskins, the second-best NFL team of the '80s (with three Super Bowl visits and two wins) pray for critics, scoffers and mockers -- real or imagined. Give us foes, traitors, back stabbers, they beg. Please, please, Lord, let Joe Theismann pop off, just one more time.

And, lo, Joe poppeth off.

If Mike Ditka of the Chicago Bears had one wish this week, it would probably be that Theismann had gotten laryngitis before he talked to Dave Kindred of The National.

Joe had a few things to say. Gibbs is a workaholic who's in danger of burning out himself and his staff. With Bobby Beathard gone, Gibbs is the sole power in Redskin territory, surrounded by exhausted yes-men. To players, Gibbs is "untouchable and unreachable." Gibbs has drained the team of colorful personalities, while keeping tight-lipped veterans. He "has stolen the character of this team." Quarterback Mary Rypien is an immobile "Jekyll and Hyde. Four touchdowns this week, then he disappears."

Few people can irritate others like Theismann, who's a sort of human pebble stuck in your shoe. He can bite the hand that fed him and make it seem like he's just a playful pup stealing a slipper and refusing to give it back.

On Wednesday, Gibbs offered Theismann a way out. "I'll have to talk to Joe and get his true feelings. Maybe he was misquoted." After all, Theismann was the first athlete to claim he was misquoted in his own autobiography.

"Maybe we can overcome the coaching, but with a bunch of deadpan guys I imagine it'll be tough," said Gibbs with dry disgust. "Joe hasn't been around here that much lately. He needs to stop by."

Oh, that might not be such a good idea.

Yesterday, Theismann reiterated his positions. And embellished a little. "Sometimes the truth doesn't agree with people," he said. "The only thing I would take back would be the part about the coaches being 'yes men.' I apologize for that. But the rest? Those are my observations. What's everybody getting excited about?

"Everybody's scared to say anything on that team. Maybe Joe didn't like what I said . . . Next time I come around, if somebody wants to take a poke at me, okay . . . Heaven forbid anybody should ruffle the feathers of the Redskin organization . . .

"I'm not worried about Joe Gibbs the coach. I care about Joe Gibbs the person."

Five years ago, when The Injury cost Theismann his career, Gibbs didn't come to visit him that night in the hospital. Gibbs later apologized, but their relationship changed. Gibbs also vetoed Theismann's idea of standing on the sideline for the final game of the season, calling it "a distraction."

Redskin Park should be a cheerful place the rest of this week. As the aging, tight-lipped, inconsistent veterans -- all of them boring as rocks -- go through their drab characterless drills in preparation for the Chicago Bears, they will have their mantra: "Jooooooey, come viiiisit."

As Gibbs tosses in the bed next to his office, as his coaches collapse for naps in the halls, surrounded by pizza crusts, they'll fall asleep muttering, "Theismann never rhymed with Heisman."

By Sunday, when they need one final jolt to get ready for the NFC Central champion Bears, no doubt Theismann will have sprinkled a few more bons mots at their feet. After all, he's not under a gag order. Even yesterday, he slipped in the odd compliment. "I've never seen a Redskin team get their asses handed to them the way the Eagles did it on Monday night TV. . . . After the Dallas loss, Gibbs said that the Redskins were 'outplayed and outcoached.' Even if you believe it, you don't say it. Especially if it's the Cowboys."

All of Theismann's points have enough basis in reality to sting. Gibbs's health really was questioned last year, but, minus 30 pounds, running regularly and with a cyst removed from his rear end, he seems far more fit and upbeat this year. However, when Theismann says, "Mike Ditka and Dan Reeves had heart attacks. I know how hard Joe Gibbs works," his concern seems reasonable.

When Theismann says, "Our old teams had characters who had character," it certainly brings into focus the uniform grayness of many current model-citizen Redskins, like Art Monk.

There's no denying that with Beathard and Dan Henning gone Gibbs is the main authority at Redskin Park. And he's decided to sink or swim with one of the NFL's older teams, including 13 players (most of them in key roles) who are past their 30th birthdays.

"I don't pull these things out of the air," says Theismann. Even if Theismann's words have a mischievous or malicious spin (take your pick), his other insights about the team's future are interesting, too.

"It seems like, in recent years, Joe has taken until this part of the season to settle on what he wants to do," said Theismann. "Then the roles finally come into focus, like letting Byner carry the ball (32 times) last week . . .

"Ever seen one of those paperweights with a scene of New York City inside? Turn it upside down and the snow falls. You can't see the buildings. Then, as the snow settles, you start to see the skyscrapers. The Redskins are like that in their good years. In December, you start to see the big buildings clearly. Monk's catching passes. They're running behind Jacoby. Darrell Green will probably return a punt for a touchdown."

Are the Redskins a talented veteran team coming into focus or just an aging one that's lost its way in the snow?

Whichever the answer, you can't blame Joe Theismann. He's done his part. He's slapped every face in the room. Hard.