In their quest to place Redskins in their proper niches last summer, Washington's new coaches were bound to get an incomplete picture of some players. In Clarence Harmon's case, the coaches barely sketched an outline.

"I got lost in the shuffle; no doubt about it," Harmon admits about his discouraging 1981 training camp. "It was the most frustrating time of my pro career."

From 1979 clutch performer and 1980 starter, Harmon slipped back, way back, to his former duties as a receiver in the two-minute offense and on third-down passing situations. Then, in the midst of the Redskins' fifth straight loss, he suffered a fractured shoulder and missed the rest of the season.

Because Harmon is not outspoken, he never questioned his role. But many of his admirers and teammates wondered if his reputation had failed to reach the West Coast, where Coach Joe Gibbs previously had functioned as San Diego's offensive coordinator.

A year later, Gibbs defends last summer's judgment of Harmon. "We were fully aware of how good a player he is," he said. But he also admits that he should have given Harmon a chance to run more than twice in four preseason games.

"We aren't going to limit him like that again," Gibbs said. "We knew he was a very good pass receiver and we used him in that capacity. Did I get a good feel for his running ability? Probably not. But he's looked very good and quick running here so far. We are anxious to see him in games. We are going to give all our backs plenty of opportunities to play in the next few weeks.

"He already has shown us that he is in great shape. That's the first step. But at this point, I don't know how it will work out for him. We honestly have not reached any decisions about our running backs. Maybe if he had stayed healthy last year, he would have wound up where Terry Metcalf wound up, running in motion from tight end. Who knows? It's just a shame he got hurt."

Gibbs certainly was faced with a major personnel dilemma last summer. Not only had he been away from the National Football Conference since 1979, he also was trying to get a handle on newcomers Terry Metcalf and Joe Washington, fullback John Riggins (returning from retirement) and incumbent starter Wilbur Jackson. That didn't leave much time to focus on Harmon, who had neither their reputations nor career statistics.

"It was a jolt, a big jolt, going from starter to way down on the list last summer," Harmon said. "I think we had something like 13 running backs in camp. I had been on top and now I was trying to fight my way back up the list.

"I've never felt that secure in my career, so I didn't think it was all over. I just worked hard every day and hoped I could do something to attract their attention."

The problem with Harmon always has been that he is not always spectacular in practice or in individual physical tests, yet he is highly productive in games. But sometimes it is difficult to get playing time without outstanding training performances, especially if a player lacks flashing quickness. It is a Catch 22 situation, one that Harmon is trying to shake, in part by working particularly hard on his blocking, his most glaring weakness.

Perhaps it would help if he showed his coaches films from 1979, when his catches led directly to two last-minute victories. Or he could have them view a personal highlight film from 1980, when he gained 1,018 yards despite working behind an injury-plagued offensive line. His 54 receptions that year were only one shy of the then-club record.

At least Harmon has had one major question answered in this camp. He came in fretting about the strength of his shoulder.

"It was a mental thing that I had to work out," he said. "When you've had as many months as I've had to worry about it, the whole thing sort of builds up on you."

His concerns were wiped out sooner than he thought. In a scrimmage eight days ago against the Colts, he was scheduled to take part in the passing drills and then skip the full-contact segment of the workout. But when two rookie backs were hurt early that day, Gibbs asked Harmon to stay around longer.

"I remember the play that gave me all the answers I needed," he said. "I was running straight through a hole and a linebacker came up and met me head on. He tackled me right on the shoulder and I didn't feel a thing. That's when I knew I could worry about something else now."

The scrimmage showed something else: Harmon could still make receptions in traffic and still gain yards when his team most needed a boost. When he scored a touchdown on one particularly nifty maneuver, a spectator yelled loud enough for even Gibbs to hear: "Same old Clarence, always producing the big play."

Gibbs came into camp thinking he might keep only four backs. Now he is starting to talk about five. For Harmon, who is competing for time against similarly gifted Nick Giaquinto, the salvation may be special teams, where he served as unofficial captain last year prior to the injury.

"Special teams definitely will be a factor in our running back decision," Gibbs said. "Clarence has the kind of versatility we want. And he never backs off from doing the hard work. You have to admire someone with that kind of attitude."