Certainly, this must be Dallas Week at Redskin Park. Why else would defensive end Dexter Manley spot a nearby television camera, then playfully place a rubber Mr. T mask over his head and hold a small poster sent to him from a fan that read "Crush Dallas, Mr. D."

When Manley, who might be able to play against the Cowboys at RFK Stadium Sunday despite an ankle injury, suddenly realized that his hijinks might be beamed to Dallas, he asked the cameraman to forget the event ever happened. The cameraman gave a shrug, as if it were too late for that.

And why else would Coach Joe Gibbs lose his standard even keel for a midpractice moment and yell at his players, imploring them to start practicing with more emotion. "Start working hard or we're gonna get smoked this week," Gibbs yelled.

This reaction was far different from Gibbs' reaction to another Redskins practice he thought lacked emotion. That practice occured back in August when training camp neared completion in Carlisle, Pa. Gibbs didn't yell that time. He simply walked off.

Gibbs said of yesterday's explosion, "Those are the things you don't need to explain. Those things just happen in practice." Gibbs said he is sure his team understands the importance of Sunday's 4 p.m. game between the co-leaders in the NFC East.

Some time after all of this hubbub, kick returner Mike Nelms was in the locker room saying, "Of course my opinion is extremely biased, but I think I'm the best there is at what I do. I've always thought that, ever since I started playing this game in the sixth grade. I think it's a healthy attitude for a competitive football player."

Some things never change. Like Nelms' confidence.

This has been an awkward season for Nelms. He is averaging 10.1 yards on punt returns, which is about equal to his production during the three seasons he reached the Pro Bowl (1980-81-82), and he is averaging 20.9 yards on kickoff returns, about five yards less than the production in his three years of glitter. Nelms rates seventh in the league in punt returns, 15th in kickoff returns.

There are two sides to this 1984 story of Nelms, who is 29 and in his eighth year of returning kicks (fifth with the Redskins) with this motto: "Make the most out of every situation -- and a little more."

On the one hand, Nelms has lost some of his best blockers and those players have been replaced by new players unfamiliar with Nelms' ways.

"This week will be the first time we've had the same lineup on punt returns for two weeks in a row since the season started," said Wayne Sevier, special teams coach.

Sevier said these continual roster changes hinder the return teams more than the coverage teams "because the return teams need a complete effort and need more finesse and the coverage team can be made by one player, like an Otis Wonsley, playing great."

Last season, Sevier said, the Redskins deployed the same three players all season to build Nelms' crucial blocking wedge: Pete Cronan, Bruce Kimball and Darryl Grant.

Now, Cronan is on injured reserve and likely lost for the season. Kimball, a reserve offensive guard and a respected special teamer, has been cut.

Grant, still the starting defensive tackle, has been saved from exhaustion to concentrate only on defense.

Nelms' wedge this season is formed by three players who weren't with the team last season: rookie tight end Anthony Jones, reserve guard Rick Donnalley and reserve running back Rick Kane. Tight end Walt Arnold helped for four weeks, until he was cut last week.

Nelms will not criticize his blockers. He will say, "You change personnel over and over and you screw up that continuity. (Players in the wedge) have to know the way you field the ball, they have to know your acceleration, the kinds of holes you look for and hit and the kind of blocking you need to be effective."

On the other hand, there are those who say Nelms is past his prime, that he lacks the explosiveness of years ago, that he does more running from side to side than he does forward and that his body now pays the price for his refusal to fair-catch punts.

Last year, Nelms missed seven of 19 games due to injury. The Redskins had rookie Jimmy Smith returning kickoffs at the start of the season, but he lasted only for the first half of the season opener. When Smith was cut for being indecisive, Nelms again became the top kick returner.

"We want Mike to fair-catch now when the timing is right," Sevier said. "I felt last year that one reason he missed so many games was because on high, short punts, he returned them and was taking hits and it took its toll."

Just as he won't criticize his blockers, Nelms also won't criticize his critics. "I don't feel age is a detriment," he said. "If you feel you're unaffected by age you're either lying or blind. I have to work harder now as I get older. I feel I'm stronger and I'm heavier (6 feet 1, 185 pounds) than I've been in the past."

And faster? "I think so," he said. "All I need is a little room and the ball."

"Our returns have not been what we want this year," Gibbs said. Then, he said that this is not due to inefficiency on Nelms' part. "Sometimes, teams will kick away from Mike. The rest of it is that other teams put special emphasis on Mike, knowing that he's back there."

So now Nelms is left somewhere in the middle -- looking for blocking, looking away from criticism. "Things are on the upswing," said Nelms, who returned a punt 46 yards in a victory over Philadelphia several weeks ago (his longest return since a 75-yarder three years ago).

One other thing about Nelms never changes: "My goal is to go to Hawaii," he said, thinking of the Pro Bowl. "That's cut and dried. If that happens, everything else will take care of itself."

All-pro wide receiver Charlie Brown (sprained ankle) has not practiced for two weeks and Gibbs said yesterday, "I don't think there is any way Charlie will play Sunday."

Meanwhile, Manley (sprained ankle) returned to practice, surprising Gibbs, who had listed him as "doubtful" earlier this week. Manley has not missed a game in his four-year career.

"I'd say Dexter is 'P,' " trainer Bubba Tyer said, using the NFL injury report terminology for "probable." (75 percent chance he will play) . . .

All-pro defensive tackle Dave Butz got kicked in his ankle and hobbled off the field, ending his practice. "It's nothing serious, not even worth writing about," Butz said. Tyer said Butz should practice today . . .

Linebacker Rich Milot (bone fragment removed from his elbow nearly three weeks ago) again practiced lightly. His left elbow was heavily wrapped.

"I didn't feel any pain. I pushed and I grabbed out there, but I didn't get it whacked or anything," said Milot, the Redskins' most versatile linebacker. "Ultimately, the decision is theirs (the coaches')."Gibbs said Milot might play in some nickel (passing) situations Sunday . . .

Ken Coffey and Tony Peters worked out at strong safety with the first team. Peters started the first five games of the season, before an abdominal muscle pull forced him to sit out last week's game. Coffey filled in.

"The feeling right now," Gibbs said, "is let Kenny play until he might have any problems or until Tony is healed."