Near the end of Friday night's game against Minnesota, Bob Kuziel and Ron Saul stood next to each other along the Redskin bench. They were laughing and smiling, caught up in the excitement created by an enthusiastic home crowd and an easy preseason victory.

Because of injuries, neither had played. Even if they had been healthy, they would not have started or seen much action. The victory was engineered by younger players, just as this team and this season have been passed on to a younger generation.

In the midst of the optimism created by Joe Gibbs during his first training camp, Saul and Kuziel represent a much more sober, sadder side of pro football.

They are being phased out of the game, just as Chris Hanburger, Billy Kilmer, Sonny Jurgensen, Len Hauss, Diron Talbert and Ken Houston were cast aside in past seasons by George Allen and Jack Pardee.

None of the earlier departures has been voluntary. Most have been controversial. The players, convinced they could go on at least one more season, thought the club had mistreated them. Management, for the most part, was convinced it was making a smart business decision.

"Having to cut a veteran, especially one that has contributed a lot to a team, is a difficult thing to do," said General Manager Bobby Beathard, the man behind the newest Redskin youth movement. "No player likes to admit he is done and they don't like to be told, either. If it was up to some of them, they'd stay around until you had to carry them off. But everyone has to retire some day."

That day is close, it appears, for Saul and Kuziel. If they aren't waived by the first mandatory squad reduction Tuesday, it seems certain they will depart before the season opener in September. Only an unlikely continuation of the Redskins' current injury problems could save the two. But, to complicate matters, their own ailments have prevented them from properly challenging for roster spots. Saul will undergo an arthroscopic examination today for his sore knee. Kuziel will be in traction for his sore back.

What has happened to Saul and Kuziel has marred what otherwise has been an upbeat camp for Redskin players. Other veteran players were saddened as they watched their two teammates being cast aside, wondering why either was even brought to camp.

"If they weren't going to keep Ron and Bob," said one veteran, "they should have cut them before camp started. It's pretty obvious neither was going to make it once they got here. Why put them through it?"

From the coaches' standpoint, bringing Saul and Kuziel to camp made sense. Although the coaches were confident their young offensive linemen were capable of playing immediately, there was enough doubt to warrant having around as many veteran linemen as possible as insurance.

"You always want to bring the veterans to camp if they have any chance of making it," said Joe Bugel, the line coach. "You can't phase them out without one last shot. They are professional enough to realize that it would be hard to keep an older guy over a younger guy if the younger guy is better.

"There comes a time where competition takes care of itself. Joe (Gibbs) told all of us not to mess on anyone. We were determined to give everyone a fair shot to compete in competitive drills. The results are on film and films don't lie. We certainly won't cut anyone if he still can play."

Bugel said Saul and Kuziel were informed of the Redskins' line plans before training camp. Both, he said, realized they wouldn't come in as starters. "It was their decision to come or not come."

Both decided they wanted to continue to play. But it's apparent neither realized just how committed the Redskins are to going with younger players like rookie Russ Grimm and second-year men Melvin Jones and Jerry Scanlan. Veterans Terry Hermeling and Dan Nugent, seeing the trend developing in minicamps, chose to retire in June.

Feelings about Saul and Kuziel run deep among the Redskins because each, in his own way, is special.

Kuziel, 31, is one of the classiest people in pro football. Always cheerful, always a gentleman, he is a consummate team player who has gotten the maximum out of less-than-superstar ability. He waited quietly for Hauss to be phased out, then started for most of the last three seasons until Pardee replaced him with Dan Peiffer last December.

When the Redskins drafted Mark May and Grimm from Pittsburgh, Kuziel, a former Panther, was one of the first veterans to welcome them even though he realized Grimm especially was chosen as his possible replacement.

Few players are as popular within the squad as Kuziel, known for his good-natured ways and biting humor. His friends say he has been shaken by this camp, but he has refused to complain.

"I just came here to play as hard as I could," he said at one point, "and whatever happens, happens." But when he developed back spasms a few days into practice, any hope of impressing the coaches disappeared.

Saul, 33, has been a Redskin starter for five seasons, a pro for 11. His knees are scarred by four operations and his left knee has been acting up for a week. He probably should have limped away from the game years ago, except for one overriding reason: few players have ever loved the game more.

No matter how battered his body was, he would refuse to go voluntarily to the bench. In practices, after taking his turn with the first-string offense, he would ask for duty on the scout squad, which would be running opponents' plays against the first-team defense.

He, too, goes through life on the upbeat. Nearly everyone is Saul's friend at training camp, from the general manager to guards at the stadium gate. He also is a marvelous teller of ribald stories. At the team training table two weeks ago, after the players chanted for him to stand up, Saul spent five minutes relating a story that had coaches and athletes doubled over in laughter.

Saul is what a lineman is supposed to be: tough, crusty, battered, hard-nosed. The affection his teammates hold for him is apparent to anyone who spends time at camp.

"Maybe there is no right way to handle a situation like this," said Jurgensen, who has had seven years to ponder his forced retirement by Allen. "No one wants to be told they aren't any good any more. You survive in this league on ego and pride. It's really a great life. Everything is done for you and you are considered special by fans. You start feeling you are invincible.

"The club uses you, but you want to be used. It's tough to have to start a new life at 35."

Both Saul and Kuziel have planned for their second careers, however. Kuziel is an established real estate agent in Northern Virginia. Saul is employed by a local corporation. Neither would be headed for the unemployment line if the Redskins handed them a pink slip. But their departure would eliminate another link to the Redskin past.

"You try to make the soundest decisions possible about everyone," said Gibbs. "You also have to go on instinct, a gut feeling. You try to be fair, but it never works out that way. These are sad times, no doubt about it."