Winning brings happiness, so it's not surprising that practical jokers are everywhere in the Redskins locker room these days, filling cowboy boots with ice and dumping cold water on unsuspecting shower room occupants.

"It's the ones with the serious faces that you have to watch out for most," said Guard Mark May.

Maybe one day the Redskins will realize they aren't supposed to be this happy--or be tied with Dallas for first place in the NFC. But not yet.

"We're better than a lot of people give us credit for," said receiver Charlie Brown. "A lot of other guys feel that way, too. We aren't lucky, we have talent. But I guess we have to keep on winning before everyone stops thinking we're doing this with mirrors or something."

"These guys amaze me," said Richie Petitbon, the Redskin defensive coordinator. "You'd expect a letdown or some change, maybe even a big head or two. But they go along the same way every week. They have their fun but they practice pretty well almost every day and they play hard every game. Man, no one up here is complaining. It's great."

In two years, Coach Joe Gibbs has eliminated the malcontents and complainers. Obviously, not every player is completely happy, if only because there are only 22 starting spots available.

The coaching staff has replaced 30 of the 49 players and 12 of 22 starters on the active roster in less than two years. The coaches have scouted personalities as well as skills. The result is a young, enthusiastic, compatible team that is receptive to coaching.

"There's not a guy in there that I have to say much to," said Gibbs. "You'd think every now and then you'd have to yell at somebody, but they work hard in the weight room and the field. All you have to do is point them in the right direction."

Gibbs doesn't fit the coaching stereotype. He is approachable, going out of his way to greet visitors at practices. He has a spontaneous laugh and likes to tell stories on himself and his friends.

Gibbs also cares about his players. He has brought a humanistic approach to a profession with a reputation for cold, computer, businesslike efficiency. And the players have responded with loyalty.

A few days after their only loss this season, to Dallas, Gibbs told his players he wanted them to feel secure, that they all were together for "the long haul," that no one would be cut or traded unless clearly beaten out for a position.

"I don't care how things have been done other places," he explained later. "Things are going to be different here. I told them we had made only one trade (actually three) since I've been here and that was because we wanted to develop from within and have everyone grow together."

Gibbs agonizes over cutting players and making squad moves. He has strong loyalty to players who have served him or the team well (Terry Metcalf, Ron Saul). He also frets about team chemistry and whether the waiving of even the 49th player will upset enough people to affect concentration.

"Coach Gibbs uses the common-sense approach with us and we all appreciate it," May said. "He treats us like mature men, like we have a brain. He comes in and explains things logically to us. Every week he outlines what our goals should be. He can get emotional and he can give us pep talks but he doesn't overdo it. The guys like him, no doubt about it."

Gibbs has sold his players on one overriding premise: they aren't good enough to take any game lightly. He has them convinced they must play emotionally every week.

"We just hang in there with people and slug it out, but they are a team that can overcome anything, a strike, bad weather, close fourth quarters, even if they aren't dominant," said Gibbs, whose team has been close to winning or losing in the fourth quarter of every game this season.

"The best thing about it, is that our players know that. It would be totally different if we thought we were a dominant kind of team. It takes all 49 of them scrapping around the whole time until they somehow find a way to get it at the end."

Still, the Redskins probably are better than Gibbs depicts them. A transfusion of 13 draft choices in two years has improved depth. Their offense is quicker and an upgraded weight program has increased team strength.

But the roster still is dominated by former free agents, 24 of them. That's one reason team officials feel so good about this season. They figured it would take one more deep draft from a good 1983 college senior class to put Washington on firm footing. But the rebuilding program arrived a year ahead of time.

"I never would have dreamed we'd be 5-1 right now," Gibbs said. "With our schedule and everything else involved, there's no way we have this record."

The coaches have compensated for the dearth of dominating players (they have only five No. 1 draft choices) by designing roles for limited-skill athletes. A linebacker who tackles better than he defends against the pass, for example, is used on running downs and removed on passing downs. As many as 37 or 38 players wind up playing at least one offensive or defensive snap weekly. That does wonders for squad morale.

"We have better talent than some teams and not as good as other teams," said Dan Henning, the Redskins' assistant head coach. "But we are blessed with a collective character and collective intelligence. They never cease to amaze us by what they can carry out . . . on the field. They have a wonderful retentive ability from week to week, where you can drop something from the game plan for a while, then put it back in and they pick it back up without missing a step."

This essentially young team (25 players have less than four years experience) is held together by what a college coach would call senior leaders: John Riggins, George Starke, Dave Butz, Joe Theismann and Mark Murphy, among others.

When fullback Rickey Claitt wouldn't stop talking a few weeks ago, he was wrapped in tape from head to toe and dumped on the practice field. He retaliated by taking shoes from every player's locker and taping them to a basketball backboard and net.

Russ Grimm, the second-year guard, loves to pick up helmets and hide them when their owners aren't looking. Grimm got his reward this week: A large bucket of ice dumped over his head just as he was entering the shower.

Mike Nelms does exotic bird calls. Joe Washington hums constantly. Neal Olkewicz creates outrageous nicknames. Pete Cronan does somersaults on the practice field. Players boo Gibbs when he says it's the last play of practice, then wants to run one more.

"People probably think it's hokey when we talk about 45 guys working together and being a family," Theismann said. "But let 'em think what they want. How else do you explain our record?"