With the Redskin careers of such NFL veterans as Clarence Harmon, Terry Metcalf and Rich Caster at stake, the team's coaching staff began deliberating last night over final squad cuts, buoyed by the news that injured running back Joe Washington could return quicker than anticipated from knee surgery.

Coach Joe Gibbs said Dr. Stanford Lavine has revised estimates on Washington's recovery from arthroscopic surgery for a cartilage tear. The prognosis after surgery was five to six weeks, with the possibility of more surgery if the cartilage did not heal in four weeks. Gibbs said Lavine, following consultation with other doctors, said that Washington may be back within four weeks.

"We just aren't going to rush Joe," Gibbs said. "When he's ready, he's ready. But it does put us in a dilemma. Do we put him on injured reserve (meaning he'd miss the first four regular-season games)? Or do we keep him active and go with him on the taxi squad?"

Gibbs admitted he began the personnel meetings "leaning" in one direction regarding the Redskin place-kicking situation, following rookie Dan Miller's 0-for-2 effort in Friday night's 28-21 exhibition loss at Cincinnati. Gibbs apparently favors keeping Moseley and releasing Miller, but there still was strong sentiment at Redskin Park yesterday for staying with both Moseley and Miller. Moseley would do the kicking and Miller would be on the taxi squad.

"I have certain preferences, but I'm going into our (personnel) meeting ready to discuss all the options," said Gibbs, who has to have the team cut to 49 players (45 active, four on the taxi squad) by Monday afternoon. "Nothing has been finalized."

The kickers were not the only difficult squad decisions facing Gibbs and his staff as the Redskins prepare for a Sept. 12 opener at Philadelphia. This is how the most critical appeared yesterday:

* Metcalf, who played very little against Cincinnati in his only preseason appearance, isn't in a good situation, so much so that he hardly was used in yesterday's passing drills. What makes this decision difficult for Gibbs is that he is very close to Metcalf, but there just doesn't appear to be roster space for him.

* Harmon could be affected directly by any decision regarding Joe Washington. Gibbs will keep no more than five running backs; Harmon, whose talents have never been used fully by this staff, is No. 6, behind Nick Giaquinto. If Washington is placed on injured reserve, Harmon could stay. Harmon, who was scheduled this exhibition season for extra work, wound up with only 12 carries and five receptions, which gave him little chance to move up the depth chart.

* Caster and fellow tight end Rick Walker weren't helped by the outstanding performance of Clint Didier against Cincinnati. This is a numbers situation; Gibbs has talked about using anywhere from three to five tight ends. The first three appear to be Don Warren, rookie Mike Williams and Didier. Now it's a matter of how many the Redskins choose to keep beyond those three.

* Center Ron Saul hurt his knee slightly against Cincinnati, which could muddle the backup situation along the offensive line. Again, a numbers game: if eight linemen are kept, the Redskins must choose between youth (Melvin Jones) and experience (Saul). If the team goes with nine, both make it.

Many of the cuts involve this annual question: keep the young player or the veteran?

Saul, Metcalf, Caster, Dallas Hickman and even Harmon are all affected by the debate, with Gibbs warning, "we probably will have an awful lot of young players playing prominent roles on this team once again."

One of those youngsters, receiver Charlie Brown, evidently may start against Philadelphia after catching four passes against Cincinnati.

Gibbs said he was leaning toward starting Brown, who would replace Virgil Seay. Brown, who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, had played sparingly before Friday.

Another receiver, rookie Carl Powell, a third-round choice from Jackson State, is unlikely to stay, even as a taxi squad member.

Powell, who was drafted for his speed, labored through camp and never displayed the quickness that initially attracted the Redskins.

He caught only one pass in four exhibition games and had problems grasping the sophisticated Washington passing system after playing in a wishbone college offense. Although they knew he was inexperienced when they drafted him, the Redskins figure he still is at least two years away.

Gibbs vowed to make his final squad moves "as soon as possible" so his players could begin concentrating on the season opener. He also said:

* Cincinnati's passing success (25 of 36, 325 yards, four touchdowns) might benefit the Redskins.

"It exposed some things that maybe we can't do against an opponent with those kind of talented receivers," he said. "We can't match up so much in man-to-man with them. We can't play defense like that. We have to be careful in the schemes we use when the receivers are that good. The schemes left us in a lot of man-to-man coverage and that was tough for us. We couldn't get close enough to knock the ball, away.

"We have to adjust some and maybe not use so much man in those situations."

* Being 0-4 concerns him, "but we are fortunate that now we can start over again with a clean slate. We have to be realistic. We played the same kind of (playoff) teams we have to play in nine games this year. Is it a bad sign? Well, it does show we are weak in some areas."

* The team's inability on offense to complete the big play at the right time is becoming a major irritation. "We had a number of plays where we just missed what might have been touchdowns," he said. "We have to start making those plays. But fortunately, we did hold on to the ball (no turnovers) for long periods of times and (punter) Jeff Hayes had a stupendous night. Otherwise, they might have blown us out of there."

* He still isn't overly concerned about the Redskins' pass protection, although Joe Theismann again worked under constant pressure from the opposition's defensive line. "We aren't picking up stunts quite as well as I thought we would, so we are behind there," Gibbs said. "But I'm still convinced we'll be okay."