Bob Brunet, always among the Redskins' leading tacklers on punt and kickoff returns, is retired, the victim of a career-ending neck injury last season. Eddie Brown, the most valuable return man in the NPL the last two seasons, plays for the Rams these days, the principal figure in the most controversial Redskin trade in recent years.

Rusty Tillman, the captain and king of the special teams, is beginning to job after knee surgery nine days ago, has missed the last two preseason games and may not play for at least another month.

And the meticulous assistant coach, Paul Lanham, who molded Washington's kicking units into very extra special teams the last five years, toils for the Rams now after heading west with George Allen.

Despite the loss of these four principal figures, the tradition of solid and occasional spectacular special-teams play seems likely to continue in the Jack Pardee era.

Earlier in the summer, particularly after the Brown trade, several players were grumbling that Pardee was not emphasizing special teams as much as Allen.

They wondered why Pardee's special teams coach, John Hilton, was also being asked to coach the tight ends. They groused that not enough practice time was being devoted to the kicking game. And they howled over the loss of Brown, a man Tillman called "the best returner I've ever seen."

Most of that talk has subsided now after three preseason games. The special teams seem to be performing as efficiently as ever, making big plays and holding opposition units to minuscule return yardage.

Against the Colts Friday night, the special teams blocked well enough to produce kickoff returns of 47 and 67 yards by Tony Green, and held the Colts to 11 yards on two punt returns.

For the preason, the figures are even more dramatic. With Green's two long returns, the Redskins are averaging 34.5 yards per kickoff return. Hilton's goal for the season is to average 24 yards per return.

The Redskin are averaging 12.3 yards on punt returns. The goal for the year is 11.

They have allowed the opposition only 5.7 yards per punt return (the goal is 6.9) and they have given up an average of 18.6 yards on kickoff returns, slightly above Hilton's goal of 18 yards per return.

Punters Mike Bragg and George Roberts have combined for a net average (after returns) of 37 yards a kick, while opponents are averaging a 26-yard net. Both figures are considered excellent.

"I really think they've been doing a great job," Tillman was saying the other day. "Whether or not they've really been tested is another question. We'll find out quite a bit when we play St. Louis or Dallas.

"But it looks like they've come up with some good young kids who like to hit and can get excited about it, and that's important. Special teams are something you can do well in with basic execution. If you block and tackle better than the other guys, you don't have to get too fancy to be successful."

Hilton says he also has been delighted, but hardly surprised, over the play of his units. He also insisted he was not disturbed about talk of de-emphasizing the teams "because anyone who knows Jack also knows he's always placed a major importance on it."

In 1977, Pardee's Chicago Bears were among the top 10 in the NFL in five different special-teams categories, including third in kickoff return defense and fourth in punt return defense.

"I spent the first two years in Chicago trying to get our kids to understand the importance of it," Hilton said. "By the third year, they knew what we were talking about. Last season, we won two or three ball games with it.

"Here in Washington, that's one thing you don't have to impress on these guys. It's been a tradition here for seven years, and with guys like Rusty and Pete Wysocki around, it doesn't take much to get them enthusiastic."

Hilton admits he would like to devote more practice time for individual work. "I think we're able to get everything covered. We get a lot done on the practice field. We don't do much standing around."

Hilton also is not adverse to borrowing from other teams. The Redskins' punt-return schemes are modeled after the Oakland Raiders' system. He had also decided to stay with the basic system the Redskins used for kickoff returns," Hilton said.

"On coverage, we try to teach them to stay on their feet and stay in their lanes. We want them to use their hands, change speeds and once they get in the area to attack the return man, we want them to get under control. If you can't do that, it's tough to make the tackle.

"Right now, I think we're playing super. A lot of times special teams have fluctuations in consistency. But so far we've been consistently good in every game. If we can continue this each week I think we'll be a heckuva help to the football team this year."