Once, they gathered on a bench in the sun these grand ol men of the Washington Redskins, to gab and gossip for a few minutes before one of George Allen's three-hour practices.

Rookies and other peach-fuzz faces knew better than to intrude in that special place, reserved for the people Allen used to call "men of good character.

Mostly, they were simply characters, and their laughter echoed through the woods around Redskin Park as they regaled each other with tall tales of the previous night's Georgetown escapade, animated anecdotes of past games and glories, and outrageous imitations of Allen's latest fiery pep talk.

Nowadays, the bench has been replaced by a pile of tackling dummies and foam-rubber pads at the far end of the practice field. The old ones still gather there regularly before practice, but there are few of them left.

The laughter is not quite as loud these days in the place Ron McDole calls "The Graveyard."

"No," says McDole, who will be 40 next year, "there aren't very many of us left. And every time you turn around, it seems like somebody else is missing!"

This is the new era in Redskin football, and the numbers tell it all. The Washington team that takes the field today at 1 p.m. (WDVM-TV-9) against the New York Giants at RFK Stadium has only seven players left from the 1972 squad that turned this city upside down the season of the Super Bowl.

Jack Pardee played on that 1972 team, but in his position as head coach, there can be no room for nostalgia. And so, in his first season, Pardee has mostly broken up the over-the-hill gang with one of the most massive one-year personnel shakeups in the history of the franchise.

Today's 45-man Redskin roster lists 16 new faces from the 1977 season. Two of the three starting receivers are new. Four of the five starting offensive linemen were on the bench, playing another position or toiling for another team last year.

Today's starting backfield of Joe Theismann, John Riggins and Mike Thomas did not start the Redskins' final game of the 1977 season. Coy Bacon came from Cincinnati, Karl Lorch came from the special teams to replace McDole permanently three weeks ago.

There have been other significant changes. A year ago, the Redskin final-game roster listed only six players with two years or less NFL experience.

This season, there are a dozen, including two rookies and five first-year men who attended training camps a year ago but never played during the regular season.

Last year's Redskin roster included 17 players with 10 or more years of experience. This year, there are only nine.

The team's average age in 1977 was 32. Now, it is 28. But the numbers also are harsh, because they do not tell much about the measure of the men being left behind. George ALlen had a penchant for picking up some wild and crazy people - and some same ones - and making it all work out in the end.

Calvin Hill was a Yalie who collected art; Sam Wyche a South Carolinian with a magic act. Jon Wilbur pasted thumb tack to his pads to keep away grabby linemen and Walt Sweeney was reported to be the best leg-whipper in the NFL.

They called Bay Schoenke "The Mummy" for all the yards of tape it took to hold him together for practice, and Moses Denson was "The Juggler" because that's how he handled passes out of the backfield.

No one ever played a pinball machine better than Richie Petitbon, and no one ever played football with more courage and determination than Larry Brown.

But most of Allen's favorites are gone now, soon to be joined by the likes of McDole, Kilmer, Hanburger, Talbert, Curtis, McLinton, Houston and Scott.

Some will leave on their own. Some, like Pat Fischer, will be cut down by injuries. Others will have to be told it's over. All will have marvelous memories.

"I don't think you'll ever see anything like we had again in any sport," McDole said recently. "A lot of people have tried, but nobody did it the way George did.

"I think Lenny Hanss said it best. Anybody could collect a bunch of old players, but George was the only one who could make it work. It was him. I don't know why.

"On yeah, some of it was money, some of it was making people feel important. But more than anything else, it was George's personality and the way he attacked things. He lived and died that way, and he tried to keep us a very close family. If you had a problem, it was a problem you kept inside the team.

"I'm not saying that was the right way or this is the wrong way, only that it was George's way. he had his own way of doing things.

"Every year people would predict that we'd fall apart, and we still won. And we always had a lot of fun. We were prepared, yes, but George also let us play football. If you had a certain move that you'd used for years, you kept using it.

"He did a lot or crazy things himself and you could never predict them. One time we had a team meeting and he nearly broke his hand trying to split a piece of wood with a karate chop. There were things he'd do to keep you on edge, to keep the pressure on. It was his way, and there was nobody quite like him."

That is also what a lot of people say about Ron McDole, this roly-poly bear of a man who surely will join his football fossil friends in retirement after this season.

McDole mostly watches from the sidelines now, ever since Pardee decided to replace him three weeks ago with a younger man.

When he learned of his old friend's benching, Sonny Jurgensen went on television that night and said, "for years, Ron McDole has played football with his heart and his soul and, yesterday, they broke his heart."

McDole - no Sulking Bear - is bearing up nicely. His wit is as droll as ever; and the oneliners continue to come nonstop. "I'm the new accident-insurance policy," he says. "Just call me N.Y.Life."

But McDole also has a sense of history.

"Yeah, the old gang is breaking up," he said the other day. "Me and Billy and Talbert, we're the stragglers, and soon we'll be gone, too. But that happens every year. That's football.

"These kids will get older, and this era will geta a name for themselves."

And a "graveyard," too.

The 7-3 Redskins, who have lost three of their last four starts, are favored by eight points today to end the four-game winning streak the Giants (5-5) have amassed over the last three years . . . "Everybody's aware of it," Pardee said yesterday, "but I'm more concerned with how our guards can handle their tackles, that kind of thing. Whover controls the line of scrimmage will win the game" . . . Joe Theismann starts again after a 1 1/2-game benching, and Pardee said he has no plans to switch quarter-backs in midgame . . . Safety Jake Scott missed his third straight workout yesterday with a sore hip, but Pardee again said he should be able to start . . . Pardee declined to pick a winner in the Dallas-Green Bay game today but admitted, "I'm a big Packer ran right now." The Redskins hold a one-game lead over Dallas in the NFC East . . . Pardee said Art McNally, NFL supervisor of officials, admitted game officials "blew it" in calling Danny Buggs out of bounds on that critical third-quarter sideline pass against the Colts . . . He said there was no way to determine for sure about that holding call on Terry Hermeling during Washington's final fruitless drive. "It doesn't change anything," Pardee said. "They don't change the outcome of the game of let you rerun the play . . . Giants will start Joe Pisarcik at quarterback.