The Redskins will play an exhibition game against the Cleveland Browns Monday night, but in many ways the opponent will be the Dallas Cowboys.

Although Washington's shootout with the Cowboys still is three weeks away, much of what the Redskins will do from this point on in preseason preparation will be geared to that nationally televised confrontation.

This is especially true in the area of squad cuts, which have taken on particular significance this season as Washington strives to continue its transition from an old to a young team, while also making sure it is sufficiently fortified with veterans.

During the Cleveland game (8 p.m., WJLA-TV-7), the coaching staff will be watching closely a number of battles between the veteran and inexperienced Redskin players. By Sept. 1, the squard has to be reduced from its present 68 member to the maximum roster of 45. Which youngsters survive will be determined greatly by the game planning for the season-opening Cowboy game.

If, for example, Washington was opening with Green Bay and didn't meet Dallas until much later in the schedule, the staff might be willing to go, with less-experienced players and hope they develop quickly.

But with Dallas looming so near, the cuts will tend to be much more conserative, according to team sources.

"Jack (Parde) certainly doesn't want to go out there against Dallas with anybody he isn't sure he can depend on," said one source. "A young guy might have more ability than an older player but an older player has been through a Cowboy game before; he has a performance chart. The young guy could freeze that night and make a mistake that could cost us. It would be a killer.

So there is a significant possibility that the Redskins could cut some promising athletes this year, choosing instead to go one more season with an older player who probably should be replaced right now.

Everywhere you look on the roster, this tug of war between the old and the young exists.

Do the Redskins stick with backup offensive tackle Greg Dubinetz, who filled that role last season, or do they go with rookie free agent Jerry Scanlan, a strapping free spirit from Hawaii who has the physical ability to be a starter in the future?

Right now, Scanlan isn't ready to step in and replace Terry Hermeling or George Starke against the Cowboys. By next year, he may be good enough to beat out one of them. By cutting him, the Redskins could risk losing an outstanding talent.

Do the Redskins keep rookie free agent Zion McKinney as the fourth receiver of do they tab veteran Morris Owens, who has plenty of NFL experience and has played in major pressure games before?

Until he was slowed last week by a sore knee, McKinney has been one of the most pleasant surprises of training camp. He had played just as well as No. 1 draft choice Art Monk, while Owens had been sidelined by a muscle pull. McKinney could blossom into a dependable NFL receiver sometimes this season. By letting him go, Washington could cut deeply into its future talent pool.

Do the Redskins keep rookie free agent Chris Godfrey, a defensive tackle from Michigan, or do they stick with their two aging veteran tackles, Paul Smith and Diron Talbert?

Goodfrey had mononucleosis last year in college and never caught the eyes of scouts. But he has attracted Pardee's attention enough in training camp to warrant a much closer look. Talbert and Smith alternated at one tackle spot last year and will play less this season with the emergence of Perry Brooks. Pardee has to decide whether carrying two elderly players again at the same position is wise.

Do the Redskins go with free agent punter Mike Connell or do they stay with veteran Mike Bragg, who has 12 years experience kicking against the Cowboys?

Connell has been impressive in camp, but still has to prove himself in games. Bragg has a history of responding well to challenges, and he also realizes Pardee is going to think twice about messing with his prized special teams for such an important season opener.

"We want to keep the best 45 players we have," Pardee said about the upcoming squad cuts. "Experience is a factor, sure, but if one player is clearly better than another, we'll know which one to take.

Pardee has not been reluctant in the past to break with tradition and release a popular veteran for a little-known rookie. In most cases, the gamble has paid off in team improvement. But in the past, Washington has not opened with Dallas, against whom tradition and experience are so important.

The Cowboy influence also extends to other areas. The Redskins are significantly ahead of last season, for example, in terms of offensive development. They have moved along faster, put in more formations and worked harder on full-scale passing drills.

Everything they are doing is geared toward making certain quarterback Joe Theismann is ready in three weeks. As determined as they are to make sure his backups have enough work, Theismann will play as much as he has to in the remaining preseason games to fine-tune his arm.

"We're right on schedule," said the offensive coordinator, Joe Walton. "Joe had a tired arm last week, which is normal. All the quarterbacks have done a lot of throwing in camp and you expect slumps. But we're given them rest this week and Joe is throwing sharp again. I like what I see from him. r

This also will be the last exhibition in which significant numbers of players see large amounts of game time. Pardee wants to be sure his front-line players are especially sharp for the opener.

"You want to play as many as you can to get a good look at them," Pardee said, "but as the regular season draws nearer, that luxury runs out. This upcoming week won't be too good, since we will be in camp only three days.

"That doesn't leave us much time to finish up. There still will be a lot of work to do when we get to Redskin Park. We've got a lot of decisions we have to make during that time too. And a lot of them won't be easy."