In an unexpected display of polished, destructive football, the reconstructed Redskins of Joe Gibbs unleashed an almost perfect quarter of football on the unprepared Atlanta Falcons at FedEx Field last night. One week after a dismal showing against St. Louis that disgusted Gibbs, the Redskins responded to his public displeasure by dismantling the Falcons.

After a fitful and ragged six weeks of preseason, last night's explosion against Atlanta represented much-needed and dramatic progress. And just in time, with the season opener nine days away. A week ago, the question at the edge of fretful fans' minds was, "Is this Return of the King stuff working?" Now, though this eruption came in a meaningless game, many a Redskins follower will think, "Yes, that's exactly what it used to look like."

"I was proud of our guys. We bounced back from a real poor performance last week . . . a dismal performance. . . . They are prideful, stepped up and played a good solid game," said Gibbs whose players must accustom themselves to hearing a 27-0 shutout described as merely "a good solid game." In days of yore, such scores were not uncommon, hard as it is to remember.

In fewer than 12 minutes, the Redskins built a 24-0 lead and out-gained the Falcons, 124 to 3, in the first quarter. With a 16-yard flanker reverse on the initial play from scrimmage -- the first Redskin trick play of the preseason -- Gibbs sent a signal that he wanted to see a serious season-worthy performance. And he got it.

Starting quarterback Mark Brunell completed four passes in the first scoring drive, then took the night off. Redskins runners rushed through gaping holes with Ladell Betts scoring twice on runs of five and three yards on which he was barely touched.

Most impressive was the way the Redskins blitzed Falcon quarterback Michael Vick so viciously and effectively that new Atlanta coach Jim Mora Jr., took him out after just three brief offensive series so that he would not face further bodily harm. Vick only lasted five snaps against Gregg Williams's attacking defense.

On the first play Williams sent a message of his own: a cornerback blitz. Vick tried to avoid a sack and threw a lame duck, up-for-grabs gift interception. On Vick's last play, LaVar Arrington delivered a body-slam sack that produced a fumble which Antonio Pierce returned 23 yards for a touchdown and a 24-0 lead. Less violent pile-driving hits have produced concussions.

In just five snaps, the Redskins had three clean knockout shots at Vick, two by Arrington at point-blank, full-speed range. Mora had seen enough. He yanked Vick as though waving a white flag.

What a difference a week makes, indeed. It's possible the Redskins actually listen when Gibbs speaks. Last Friday, you could have grilled steaks on the back of his neck. Though the Hall of Fame coach spoke slowly and softly, without outward anger, it was clear that whatever schedule Gibbs had in mind for rebuilding the Redskins, that timetable had been violently upset.

"They did a number on us tonight. . . . It starts with me. . . . All of us have to realize that if we don't play tough, bar none, smart Redskin football, this can happen to us," said Gibbs, dead serious, although the 28-3 loss to St. Louis was "only" a preseason game. For those who don't remember, that qualifies as a full-scale Joe tirade. He doesn't throw furniture. He just tells the truth. Then the players take it to heart. Or not. If they don't, Gibbs calmly gets new players, as feasible, until he finds his "true Redskins."

"They're smart. They saw it," said Gibbs after the victory last night. "They realized what they needed to do."

To the degree that any preseason game can have significance, this meeting with the Falcons, considered playoff contenders with a healthy Vick, was a litmus test of whether Gibbs's Redskins actually pay attention to him or are just paying lip service to the glories of the AARP coaching staff's past. They passed this test. The whole culture of the Redskins may actually be changing, though such processes are usually slow.

"This was by far the hardest preseason I have ever been through," said Laveranues Coles. "[Gibbs] is an old-school coach. He cuts no corners. He's going to get everything out of you that can be gotten out of you."

Now that the ordeal is past, almost all of it out of the sight of fans and media, the Redskins are ready to discuss what they've endured. "We became very accustomed to pads, to contact. To be great, you have to be physical," said safety Matt Bowen, who intercepted a Vick pass. "There were some days in practice it was pretty wild out there. Nobody saw it, but it was."

"We feel like the 'Junction Boys,' " said cornerback Fred Smoot, referring to the movie about Bear Bryant's early teams that survived legendary training ordeals. "There were days if somebody had gotten hurt, I would have taken 'em to hospital just to get myself some rest."

Of course last night's 27-0 statement shouldn't be mistaken for the deeds of the past, like that 35-0 second quarter against the Broncos in Super Bowl XXII. However, for a team whose play has ranged from credible to lackluster to lousy in its first four games, this was a huge improvement. In the Redskins' 24-0 first-quarter run, the Falcons committed five penalties, the Redskins none. Washington's special teams covered kicks well, while Chad Morton returned a punt 27 yards.

After the loss to the Rams, the Redskins' locker room still had some of the disquieting cavalier mood that marked the disappointing teams of recent years. Nothing dramatic, just a general lack of remorse at getting crunched, plus the occasional chuckle or joke. However, Gibbs had the team practicing in full pads the next day, then two days later, held practice at 8 a.m. Message delivered?

"The guys put the blame on themselves after last week," Bowen said. "It's not fair for us to play like that. I can't start to explain how hard our [old] coaches work. They'd be successful at anything. And they just won't accept failure. We had to show something on the field. For a meaningless preseason game, you can hang your hat on that one."

For a team that has consistently betrayed its talent in recent years and succumbed to pressure whenever any semblance of a big game arrived, any start constitutes a beginning. In the last two weeks, the Redskins have shown their worst and best. Which will more closely approximate the team that shows up for the regular season?

"I don't think you really know [where you stand] until the bullets start to fly," Gibbs said. "You're anxious, nervous. We open up with a real good team [Tampa Bay] that's just two years away from the Super Bowl.

"Every week will be pretty much a life and death struggle."

Whatever comes, it only seems fitting that the Redskins of the second Gibbs Era should at least begin their season with plausible hopes of a winning season and even a playoff berth. A week ago, that seemed like wishful thinking.

Now, while no certainly, such hopes seem far from fantasy.

Ladell Betts scampers in virtually untouched for a 5-yard touchdown in first quarter to give the Redskins a 7-0 lead.