The Washington Redskins will of course never publicly admit this. But there must have been a time, maybe years ago, maybe recently, when the shakers and movers of the Redskins sat around in their back offices, amazed, stupefied, stunned, that they were able to get Earnest Byner, one of the league's most talented running backs, in a straight-up swap with Cleveland for running back Mike Oliphant, who for now has proved to be a major-league bust.

Maybe they sat around and chuckled a bit. Or maybe they just sat there with their mouths wide open. Maybe they did nothing at all, except say, "Thank you."

Cleveland owner Art Modell isn't at all shy about discussing the trade. At a luncheon for Browns fans this week he said flat out, as reported in the Cleveland Plain Dealer: "It was a lousy trade. It wasn't just trading Earnest Byner, but we got nothing for him."

So how do you really feel, Art?

Think Oliphant got a confidence boost from Modell's remarks?

Years after the Redskins and Browns made a draft-day swap in 1989, repercussions are still being felt. Sunday at RFK Stadium, Washington and Cleveland have their first regular season meeting since the deal was made.

In Cleveland, the trade is considered among the worst ever made in Browns history. Why? Let's start with Byner.

Byner has developed into one of the most versatile backs in the NFL. He has done things for the Redskins they never dreamed possible. He does everything. Currently, his 526 yards rushing are third in the NFC. Byner also is third on the team in receiving behind wideouts Gary Clark and Art Monk with 17 receptions for 176 yards.

Byner has 3,238 combined career rushing and receiving yards as well as 19 touchdowns. Also an excellent blocker, Byner has topped 100 yards rushing in seven of his last 13 regular season games. He has even thrown a touchdown pass.

"I think the trade has worked out extremely well for us," said Coach Joe Gibbs. "They got a good player and we got a good player. We love Earnest. He's an extremely bright, highly motivated guy that has done a heck of a job for us."

Now, to Oliphant. His life since the trade has been difficult. His football career with the Browns, in fact, has been nonexistent. He spent all of 1990 on injured reserve because of a hamstring injury. Oliphant has not played this year as well and is currently on injured reserve because of a leg injury.

With the Browns, Oliphant, who worked as a welder after graduating from high school, has 119 all-purpose yards and has scored just one touchdown.

The most damaging statistic for the Browns is this: Cleveland has not had a 100-yard game from a running back since Nov. 27, 1988, when Kevin Mack rushed for 116 against -- that's right -- the Redskins. The Browns won that game, 17-13, when Byner scored the winning touchdown on a 27-yard run.

Did the Redskins think Byner would evolve into the great running back that he is?

"I didn't have any concept that the guy would do what he has done for us," Gibbs said. "When you make a trade like that you are not dreaming that the player will be as great as Earnest has been. You just think you are going to get a darn good football player."

The Browns traded Byner for a number of reasons. The first, of course, is the well-publicized moment known in Cleveland simply as The Fumble. Byner fumbled near the goal line while the Browns were driving against Denver in the AFC championship game.

There also was the time in 1988 -- then-coach Marty Schottenheimer's last season before he resigned and was subsequently hired by the Kansas City Chiefs -- when, late in a wild-card playoff game against Houston, Byner was penalized for back-to-back unsportsmanlike conduct calls that knocked Cleveland out of field goal range. The Browns lost, 24-23.

The Browns say they were trying to upgrade team speed, and they felt Byner was slow. They thought Oliphant, who when healthy is one of the fastest players on the Browns, could give them more speed.

Browns Executive Vice President of Football Operations Ernie Accorsi did not return phone calls for this story, but six months after the trade in 1989 he said: "Not my job to evaluate {the trade}. Last I checked, the commissioner's not going to give a trophy to the back from the trade who gains the most yards."

By no means are the Redskins gloating. They're just happy. Redskins Notes: It seems everyone is jumping into the Redskins' 6-0 bandwagon. Even Hollywood.

Actor Kevin Costner visited Redskin Park yesterday, after he had dinner with Coach Joe Gibbs the night before. Costner said he has always been a sports fanatic, and loves the Redskins, wearing a Redskins hat to prove it. The players, stars themselves in the eyes of the public, apparently got a big kick out of the actor's appearance. Wide receiver Gary Clark had his picture taken with Costner, who starred in the baseball fantasy movie "Field of Dreams."

But the highlight came when Costner threw a pass to Art Monk. It was a pretty tight spiral, but quarterback Mark Rypien has little to worry about.

"He only ran about nine yards," Costner said of his primary receiver. "That shows you how much faith he has in my arm."