These days, the bravado is back in cornerback Vernon Dean of the Washington Redskins.

He is back to crouching at the line of scrimmage and back to jiggling his fingers inside those black rubber gloves, seemingly daring receivers: Come at me.

"I have learned," Dean said yesterday, "that the key is never to get down on myself. Never get too low."

Some lessons come hard. This is one of them. Granted, Dean has a team-high seven interceptions and a career-best 99 tackles (six per game) this season. He now talks with a keen anticipation about playing Chicago receivers such as Willie Gault and Dennis McKinnon in an NFC playoff game at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at RFK Stadium.

But Dean's three-year journey with the Redskins has been extraordinarily uneven, taking Dean from the mountaintop (1982) to the gulch (1983) to somewhere back near the peak (1984). He's paid some weighty prices.

Can it be only two years ago that Dean was a rookie starting in a secondary with veterans such as Jeris White, Tony Peters and Mark Murphy, winning a Super Bowl? In the playoffs of that year, Dean hit Minnesota receiver Sammy White so hard that he knocked White out (this still rates as Dean's favorite play).

Dean intercepted three passes in that strike-shortened season, was runner-up to Cleveland linebacker Chip Banks in the defensive rookie of the year voting by the Associated Press.

Dean recalls of that time, "Back then, I knew I didn't have to worry about anything because with all those veterans back there with me, they told me what to do."

"It was a very good time for Vernon to break in," Murphy said. "Everybody could keep an eye on him."

Last season, though, Dean did his freefall. He discovered that cornerback can be the loneliest of positions.

Dean was beaten by so many nagging injuries and by so many receivers that his confidence seemed to lag three steps behind on every play. In the 14th game of the season, Dean was replaced by Anthony Washington. Dean's ego joined the injury list.

"I had the opportunity to play and I didn't take advantage of it," Dean said. "I didn't know if I'd ever start again.

"I was at a point where I became more and more frustrated and that only made things worse. When you get frustrated you try to do something great. You get too anxious.

"(Getting benched) wasn't the low point. When you don't feel good about yourself -- no matter when that is -- that's the low point . . . That's what happened to me last year."

Dean's revival this season was the most startling thing of all for the Redskins. He had trudged through a mediocre training camp and was beaten for a game-winning touchdown in a preseason game by a rookie receiver, the Los Angeles Raiders' Sam Seale.

When the regular season started, so did Anthony Washington, at right cornerback.

But finally, in one, two, three fell swoops during the third game of this regular season, Dean came on. He replaced the ineffective Washington as the starter in that game and intercepted three passes thrown by the New York Giants' Phil Simms to lead the Redskins to a 30-14 victory.

Dean returned the second interception 36 yards for a touchdown. Teammates lifted him into the air. Dean raised his arms, perhaps to touch the mountaintop once again. Sports Illustrated voted him the league's defensive player of the week.

Dean has been playing it tough and tight ever since. General Manager Bobby Beathard and Richie Petitbon, the defensive coordinator, are among a large group of Redskins who feel that Dean deserved to make the Pro Bowl (left cornerback Darrell Green was selected).

"I think Darrell has had a tremendous year," said Petitbon, who says that Dean has played better this season than in his rookie year (Dean isn't sure). "I think that the thing that has helped Vernon the most is his attitude and disposition. He's got a fighting spirit."

Dean refuses to blame injuries for his pass-coverage deficiencies last season. "The only thing that injuries could have done to me is take away some aggressiveness," he said.

Beathard, who selected Dean with the Redskins' first pick (second round) of the 1982 draft, isn't sure. "No matter what Vernon says, I know the injuries bothered him last year. Maybe he says that injuries like his neck burner (pinched nerve) didn't bother him last year, but the trainers say that they did.

" . . . Now I think we're seeing the real Vernon. You would have seen it last year, too, if he hadn't had the injuries."

Strange how Dean is just 25 years old and folks are saying that he's been playing like the Vernon Dean of old.

"What happened to Vernon last year was devastating," strong safety Ken Coffey said. "It taught me a lot about football, that a person could rise so high so fast and then fall that far that fast. He's made a comeback because he believes in himself."

He has learned much, Dean said, from Green, the fellow cornerback who is his roommate during training camp and on road trips. "The one main attribute that Darrell has passed on to me is, 'Never lose faith in yourself. Believe you can do it,' " he said.

In the Redskins' 30-28 victory in Dallas 19 days ago, Dean allowed receiver Tony Hill to slip past for a 43-yard touchdown pass that gave Dallas a 28-23 lead on the first play of the fourth quarter.

"When I went to the sidelines, Coach Petitbon said, 'There's a lot of football left,' " Dean said. He snarled here. "I said, 'Yeah. Come at me again.' "

With 1:17 to play, Dallas was on its 29, needing just a field goal for victory and first place in the division. On second and four, quarterback Danny White threw into the left flat, to running back Tony Dorsett. Vernon Dean was there. Dorsett caught the pass and Dean at the same time.

This seven-yard loss put the Cowboys' in a long-yardage situation. Two incompletions followed. The Redskins won. So did Vernon Dean.

"My greatest strength? Determination," said Dean, who is a solid-as-a-rock 5 feet 11, 180 pounds. "I don't need the interceptions. I just want to keep my side of the field quiet. Let them throw to my side of the field all day. Well, better not make that all day."

Tony McGee, the veteran pass-rushing specialist, remained yesterday in Battle Creek, Mich., where his mother is ailing. Gibbs said he is uncertain when McGee, who has been suffering from a knee injury, will return to the team.

It seems likely the Redskins will activate tackle Morris Towns before Sunday's game. It's possible that veteran tackle George Starke, who coaches say will require knee surgery in the offseason, might be placed on injured reserve. Starke has been a reserve for most of this season.