Joe Lavender's career has arrived at the point where the voice of doubt usually provides double coverage.

Because he is now 33, he is confronted by the twin concerns of losing youth and losing another step. People expect it. Lavender does not.

The Redskins' 10-year-veteran cornerback said today, "I'm in an age bracket where people talk about negative things. I can't allow myself to think about these things. People are always talking. That's a fact. But the big wheel keeps turning."

He has played in 92 consecutive games, not missing one since 1975, when he was with Philadelphia. In 1976, the Eagles traded him to Washington for Manny Sistrunk and three draft picks. He has intercepted 29 passes in his six years with the Redskins.

His teammates call him "Joe Bird." He is 6 feet 4, 185 pounds, odd dimensions for the usually squat, swift cornerback cast. His waist is thin, his thighs bulge to a muscular width and his arms stretch seemingly as long as the first-down chain. And under his mask, he wears glasses.

Says Richie Petitbon, the Redskins defensive coordinator, "Joe's height is a tremendous advantage. Not only is he 6-4, but his arms are so long. Sometimes it looks like he is beat, then he reaches up and knocks the pass away."

Petitbon is a former Redskin safety who knows about the voice of doubt. Petitbon heard it and retired in 1973 with his knee aching at age 34.

He said, "A player's peak years are 30-32. When you reach that age, you just can't come back from injuries. Eventually, age catches everybody."

Petitbon added, "Age hasn't caught Joe Lavender yet."

Last year, Lavender had 59 tackles and four interceptions. The Redskins had enough confidence in Lavender to trade 12-year veteran cornerback Lemar Parrish, also 33, to Buffalo on draft day. Earlier that day, they drafted San Diego State cornerback Vernon Dean on the second round, but he now is playing the other side along with Jeris White. Lavender is expected to start again this season.

Says Tony Peters, the eighth-year safety who has roomed with Lavender for several seasons, "Joe is a unique individual. He has a good understanding of himself and what he is about. He's not the cocky egotist some might construe him to be.

"After 10 years, you might say he has lost one step. But his experience is worth two or three steps."

Lavender still hits with a fury that turns receivers' bodies into various pained, contorted shades of lavender. It's a black-and-blue-inducing rage that caused two fumbles in 1981 and Pro Bowl appearances in 1979 and 1980.

"He's got such great technique," said sixth-year safety Mark Murphy, who shared defensive captain honors with Lavender in 1981. "You have to realize that even if he has lost a step, speed was never Joe's strength. Technique is."

Coach Joe Gibbs said, "Some people probably say I'm going downhill, too. I don't believe it. Joe is a class corner. We depend on him to lead us."

There are certain subjects that irritate Lavender as much as defensive pass interference calls. He breaks up questions on these subjects with cold stares.

First, his ire raises about his early report to this camp. Lavender arrived with the rookies, 10 days before the veterans arrived. It's a break from his past.

Petitbon says, "He probably feels he's getting up in years and it takes longer to get in shape. I think it shows intelligence."

Lavender says, "That's what I felt like doing. That's all. My answer is self-explanatory."

Next, there is the question of whether he is in good physical condition presently.

Petitbon says, "He's not in the greatest shape."

Lavender says only, "I'm ready to play football."

And what of his performance against Miami in Saturday night's 24-7 exhibition loss? Lavender gave a stare a puck could have slid across. "I don't want to talk about it. Nobody's performance is good when you lose."

He has two more years on his contract. In one sense, it is a future that resembles his present -- Joe Lavender doesn't want to talk about it.

Which leads us to the past of Joe Lavender. In these days when practices and meetings come in pairs, Lavender says he is reminded of his past every day.

He says, "I see so many good, excellent players who don't get the opportunity I've had. I see them come and go. It's always difficult to see your friends go, guys like Charley Taylor, Kenny Houston and (Harold) McLinton. Of course, I was a youngster coming up at the time they were here, but it was still difficult.

"Nothing can change for me in this game. The game demands the same drive year after year. This is all a dream come true for me. Now, I see younger players with the same dream that I had 10 years ago. They are just scratching, trying to make the team. I try to give it back to them, like the older guys once did for me.

"The feeling is vivid to me. It takes me within and I evaluate from within. I'm fortunate to have some numbers to look back to now. I remember when I had to struggle just to make the team."

That was a decade ago. As the 288th player chosen in the 1973 draft (12th round), Lavender battled to claim a spot as a kick blocker for the Eagles. The rookie from San Diego State then got some advice. It came from a former Pro Bowler to a future one.

Lavender recalled: "In 1973, Herb Adderly talked to me when he lived in Philadelphia. It might have changed my whole secondary career. He told me about technique and the overview of the game. He told me about the little things. Then he told me what makes the difference between an average cornerback and a great one."

Adderly now is in the Hall of Fame.