The ATM at my bank is often "Out of Service." But yesterday it not only gave me cash but posted a cheery note on its screen: "We are ready for the Year 2000."

"You miserable machine, you weren't ready for 1998 or 1999," I thought. "Why would you be ready for 2000? Talk is cheap." Then, in a free association that any shrink would love, two words popped into my head: "The Redskins."

They haven't been ready for six years. Why would they be ready for '99?

On Sunday at Detroit, the Redskins, like my ATM machine, malfunctioned. And not unexpectedly, one might add. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, you can count on the Redskins to be in a holiday mood. They'll be giving a playoff spot away.

Step back. Look at the big picture, painful as it may be. They're probably not going to make it, are they? Is this a franchise that's about to turn a corner and start some wonderful era of success? Or is it a team that's going 'round and 'round in the same circle, frustrated and saddened by watching itself?

Be honest, haven't we been here before? Two weeks ago, a rookie quarterback led the 3-10 Eagles on two 91-yard touchdown drives in the fourth quarter to force overtime on the Redskins' home field. That's almost a professional disgrace.

On Sunday, against a winning Lions team, the Redskins committed 14 penalties, gave the ball away four times, got physically whipped on both lines of scrimmage and took a 33-17 rear-kicking. By the finish, rattled by the crowd and demoralized by their own play, they looked ready to run for the charter plane. The next day, back home and safe, some players, most notably Michael Westbrook, blamed the refs; others blamed the play-calling.

Sometimes, your vision gets clarified in strange ways. For his 13th birthday, my son got the present he has asked for repeatedly--one of those "fitted" Redskins hats that you can wear frontward or backward. In other words, a hat that's nice enough to wear constantly, in all moods, until it disintegrates off his head. My son is hooked--a third-generation Redskins fan. That made me think back 30 years.

In the '60s, the Redskins hung on to estimable Bill McPeak and then mediocre Otto Graham for eight years. My dad loved Sonny Jurgensen, Charley Taylor and especially Bobby Mitchell. The 6-8, 7-7, 5-6-3 records didn't bother him much. The team was entertaining and competitive. Why blow it up and try to be great?

I despised those coaches. Even a kid knew they weren't special. Dedicated, sure. But where was the passion, the inspiration, the relentless demand for excellence and the furious disdain for losing that would create a team worth loving? Others had it. Vince Lombardi's Packers. George Allen's Rams. The Redskins' nice-guy coaches were wasting everybody's time--especially the time of their potentially great players who deserved a true leader. Why couldn't we have a Lombardi or an Allen? Eventually, we did. And later, Joe Gibbs. And for more than 20 years, the Redskins made NFL history.

The Redskins are back in the '60s again. Turner is a perfectly decent coach. But it certainly feels like he is coming up a brick shy of a load one more time. After six years, can anyone honestly say that he is inspirational, brilliant, intuitive or even semi-crazy enough to be a great head coach? Just as Graham was a great player, Turner was a great assistant. That doesn't make them head coaches.

Long ago, Graham and McPeak wasted years of Jurgensen's prime. No. 9 has said many times that he learned more football in one year with Lombardi than he did from all the rest combined. Right now, hardhearted as it seems, the Turner regime may be a waste of time for many Redskins who may have greatness in them.

That leaves us in a quandary. The Redskins are favored against Arizona on Sunday and should beat the 49ers, too. At 9-7, will they get into the playoffs? Look at the schedules and play with the permutations yourself. A 9-7 record probably won't do it. A last-game win over a good Miami team will be needed. Can these Redskins do it?

As we watch the 1999 season recapitulate the 1996 and 1997 seasons, the proper question is a harsh one: How many times do we want to watch this movie? The Redskins live in a perpetual state of damage control--fixing last week's crisis. What part of the special teams will collapse this week? Whatever happened to preventive maintenance? Where is the master plan that allows you to dictate to other teams from strength instead of reacting to them?

This Redskins team still isn't quite sharp enough, not quite physically wild enough, not quite close-knit enough to be a true winner. Yet, it still gets coddled just a bit. A team that commits 14 penalties shouldn't be allowed to cop a plea or point at the refs. It shouldn't be allowed to kid itself that a couple of key plays, or giving the ball to Stephen Davis a few more times, were the difference.

In the NFL, you've got to be able to face the truth and grow strong from it. Right now, too many Redskins are getting too much sugar-coated reality. Last month, after a win against the New York Giants, Tre Johnson said: "Look at the talent we've got. Who would you trade for a different player?" That's fantasy land. Why get better if you think you're already good? Recently, John Madden called Johnson one of the best linemen in the NFL. Yet, on Sunday, Johnson played as inconsistently as anybody.

For all those years with the McPeaks and Grahams, Jurgensen didn't quite face reality either. He had the stats and the rep. But he never won. He could've been better. But he didn't even know it. Lombardi woke him up and showed him how.

Right now, the Redskins are pretty good, as they were in 1997 and 1996. But, once again, they seem to have no clue how to get better. Almost every aspect of the last five games has been a distressing echo from the recent past, not the harbinger of a different and better future.

Sometimes, in the process of writing, you discover what you really think. And, sometimes, on days like this, you almost wish you hadn't found out.