These are the salad days for Russ Grimm, wondrous days he feared he might never have after suffering a third knee injury in three years last season. Even Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, who counts Grimm among the smartest and most valuable players he has ever had, didn't count on so much.

Gibbs expected Grimm to play in spurts, to be a coach on the field at times and a player-coach at other times.

"We kind of reached a point with Russ where we just thought it would be hard for him to go every game every play," Gibbs said. "But so far, he's been in every practice and gone all the way and is playing good. We just hope it continues."

What else was Gibbs to think in July? After once starting 85 straight games, Grimm began this season having been in the starting lineup 13 times the past two seasons.

He wasn't having the usual bumps and bruises either. He had three knee injuries, and after years in the trenches, it was always either an ankle or a shoulder or something else that was slowing, if not stopping, him.

Yet Grimm and Gibbs and the Redskins have discovered to their surprise that Grimm's 31-year-old body could more than just hold together.

"Knock on wood," Grimm said, smiling. "I don't want to say too much and jinx myself."

Once, he trained on pizza and beer and talent. "My first three or four years in the league I really didn't do much," he said. "I'd work hard on the field, but I didn't do much off it. I learned that I wasn't going to last long if I didn't start doing the other stuff. Youth will allow you a lot of leeway, but when you close in on 30, you'd better go another direction."

He has done it all the last few years, the running and lifting, and he's stronger now than ever. He didn't miss a training camp workout and the only question was whether his knees would hold together.

They have, and Grimm has started four straight games at left guard and says he has "the usual bumps and bruises, but otherwise, I feel pretty good. Actually, the best I've felt in three or four years. I'm playing okay. I'm not overjoyed with the way I'm playing, but I'm getting the job done. There are things I could do better."

This was going to be the summer the Redskins welcomed a new generation of Hogs -- Raleigh McKenzie for Grimm, Ed Simmons for Joe Jacoby and Mark Schlereth for Jeff Bostic.

But after four weeks, Grimm has held his job at left guard, Bostic remains the center, and Simmons and Jacoby are splitting time at right tackle. They are part of an offensive line that has allowed four sacks.

Only the Miami Dolphins, who protect the quickest arm on earth, Dan Marino's, have done better. What the Redskins haven't done well is run, at least the first three weeks. Their running offense had been 15th best in the NFL, their overall offense eighth best.

But the Redskins say the line was only part of that problem. They point to last Sunday in Phoenix when Gibbs decided the Redskins would run no matter what and ended up with their best effort in almost a year -- 179 yards.

"Don't underestimate those guys," line coach Jim Hanifan said of the veteran Hogs. "They're older but they also have invaluable knowledge. Part of this game is learning and being able to recognize things. You're not going to find many people better than them."

Grimm himself had talked about becoming a part-time player and accepting whatever role he was assigned. That role has turned out to be the old role.

"I expected to come back strong and be able to play," he said. "But you always have doubts when you've been hurt. You sit out a period of time and you wonder. It has been one thing or another since 1987. Yeah, there's always a question of how much you can come back. I'm feeling good now, but I've learned to take it week by week."

He felt good last year until a knee injury against the Raiders in Week 8 forced him into spot duty the rest of the season. He never got that far in 1988, suffering cartilage damage in his left knee in training camp. He was also feeling good in 1987 when he started five games at center before tearing a ligament in his left knee.

"I guess it all evens out," he said. "I went five years and missed one game."

At 31, Russ Grimm has gotten sentimental. He's at that peculiar point in a career, having played enough to own a wealth of invaluable knowledge yet also near enough to the end of his career that he knows he's going to miss it terribly.

"It's getting easier," he said. "Believe it or not, I've been through 10 training camps and every one of them has gotten easier. It's not that I'm in better shape because you're never in as good a shape as you are coming out of college. I think it's just that, mentally, you have so much confidence. You've been through everything, you know what to expect. You don't get rattled by things."

He also has learned to appreciate things. "I enjoy being here, I enjoy the game, the practices, coming here to lift," he said. "I complain and moan like everyone else, but I'll miss it. When people leave, they all say the same thing: They miss the games, but they really miss the camaraderie. You know when you reach a certain age, and you've seen so many people go, you don't know how much longer you can play. I'm eventually going to get to the point where I can no longer play; I want to have done everything I could."

So the retirement party that seemingly had everything but the engraved watch has been put off. "I haven't planned anything for 31 years," he said. "I'm not going to screw it up and start looking down the road now."