Norv Turner and Mike Nolan's punishment for having the worst defense in the NFL is that they have to listen, with a straight face, to everybody's cockamamie explanation of why they're so bad. And what they should do to get better.

When your defense gives up more yards than anybody else, including the expansion Cleveland Browns, what can you offer in rebuttal? Approach the Redskins' head coach or his defensive coordinator with any outlandish idea, no matter how nutty, and they just nod politely. It's their penance.

Nice to meet you. Oh, you think that we should play with our helmets on backward this week? Well, yes, that's a thought. Thanks for the suggestion.

Usually, when a team goes from 6-10 one season to 5-3 in the middle of the next year, the focus is on its improvement and its playoff chances. The Redskins, however, have broken the mold. Their offense has been so excellent and their defense so promising--on paper and in preseason--that even the team itself obsesses about its glaring, tormenting and mysterious weakness.

"It's hard to believe you could be as poor as we've been. It takes a lot of things to accomplish it. It's mind-boggling to see," said Nolan yesterday with a mixture of sardonic resignation and undisguised disbelief. "Sometimes, I'm left without words. . . . Other times, I don't know if there are enough words.

"You have to live with reality. Right now, for us, reality is really crappy."

The Redskins have two huge defensive tackles with contracts worth $57 million. All four defensive linemen entered the league as No. 1 draft picks. One cornerback, Darrell Green, is headed to the Hall of Fame. The other, Champ Bailey, may be the defensive rookie of the year. Safety Sam Shade got an $8 million deal. Those players, by themselves, should ensure a decent competitive defense. But the Redskins aren't. For them, even mediocrity is just distant hope.

How bad is the Redskins' defense? No other team has given up more than 400 yards a game. Only two teams have allowed more points per game. Most amazing is the gap between the Redskins and the defenses of comparable contenders. Five NFL teams could allow 130 points this week and still have a better points-against average than the Redskins' mark of 28 a game.

The whole league is talking about them. And they know it. "The Eagles' head coach [Andy Reid] called us 'awful' and 'porous,' " said one Redskin yesterday. Was that a newspaper, radio or TV quote? Or was it a grapevine quote from the Eagles' locker room? Or is it just fictional Redskins-generated, bulletin-board fodder to psyche themselves up? No matter. The Redskins believe it.

Watching every play of the Redskins' 34-17 loss to Buffalo last Sunday, especially if you have slow-motion replay so you can see every agonizing mistake as it unfolds, is more likely to make you sick to your stomach than watching "The Blair Witch Project."

It's hard to pick the most emblematic play. So many come to mind. Once, the Bills' Jonathan Linton caught a dump-off pass and headed up the middle of the field with no blockers at all. Six Redskins converged on him. Linton made the first man miss, then plowed into the next five, driving them all back two yards.

That was typical of, shall we say, a general lack of aggression. The issue isn't sportsmanship. You can be a clean player and a tough one, too. Nobody plays with the slightest trepidation against the Redskins defense. That's wrong.

Once, Doug Flutie was chased out of bounds, but not actually hit. As Flutie lay on the ground, a 290-pound man offered a hand and, gallantly, helped him up. Unfortunately, it was the hand of a Redskin. On some teams, that's an automatic fine and an opportunity, at the next team meeting, to stand in front of the squad and explain yourself.

The Redskins have some obvious problems. For example, at 39, Green has finally lost a step. On third down, he's often the first place--rather than the last--that a veteran such as Doug Flutie looks. However, the defense's problem is broader--and vaguer--than any one person.

Part of the issue is the Redskins' young and undersized starting linebackers. At 223, 238 and 239 pounds, Shawn Barber, Greg Jones and Derek Smith might have come off a '60s, or even '50s NFL roster. Buffalo, for example, listed nine linebackers on their depth chart--all 240 or bigger. One recent Super Bowl team had four starting linebackers, all 250 pounds or bigger.

Smallish linebackers are perfectly okay. But they must be of the agile, mobile and hostile variety. They're not going to stuff the run. To compensate, they've got to be speedy playmakers who can get sacks, cause fumbles, tip passes or make interceptions. They've got to strike out of nowhere and create chaos. Think of Wilber Marshall, Ken Harvey and Chris Hanburger.

The Redskins have high hopes for Barber, Jones and Smith. But right now they're often a liability. Are they even well-suited to the Redskins' defensive scheme? Usually, you'd want to be ultra-aggressive with a trio of small, quick linebackers. The problem is that all three are so young. As a result, mistakes and a lack of internal coordination among them are inevitable.

Thus, the quandary. If the Redskins play conservative, bend-but-don't-break schemes, they may get the ball run down their throats. "We're undersized [at linebacker], there's no doubt," says Nolan. But if they opt for speed and wildness, the errors of inexperience will go directly to the scoreboard. Someday, with more experience and knowledge of each other, these same Redskins defenders may be suited to the Nolan-Bill Arnsparger system they're playing. But, for now, it may remain an awkward match.

Still, slice it and dice it how you will, the Redskins' defense shouldn't be as bad as it has been.

The best break that could befall this self-doubting defense is a string of games against teams without a veteran quarterback. Who should appear, perhaps in the nick of time? The Eagles (twice) and the Giants.

"It would be a mistake for us to focus on who we are playing," said Nolan, tartly. "We have to face the fact that this is mostly about us."