Saying it was "time to let go," Washington Redskins linebacker Ken Harvey announced his retirement yesterday, drawing accolades from coaches and teammates for his ferocity on the field and benevolence off it.

Harvey, 34, reached his decision Wednesday morning, roughly halfway through training camp, as he prepared for what would have been his 12th season in the NFL and his sixth as a Redskin.

"All my life I've wanted to give 100 percent," Harvey said. "I said in the beginning that if I couldn't, then it would be time to go. This was the one time I couldn't. As much as I wanted to mentally, the body wasn't as good as I wanted it to be."

Harvey had hoped to play one more year after a knee injury ended his 1998 season in Game 11 against Arizona. To that point, he recorded 65 total tackles, including 53 solo stops, and two sacks.

He underwent arthroscopic surgery shortly afterward and had worked hard to rehabilitate the injury in the offseason.

Since his signing as a free agent in spring 1994, Harvey had been a star on defense for the Redskins, earning Pro Bowl honors four of his five seasons (1994-97) with the team. But his production dropped off last sea son, which began 0-7 and finished 6-10.

"When you put together character, athletic ability, heart and willingness to compete, no matter what the circumstances -- he's the best I've been around," said Coach Norv Turner.

Added outgoing general manager Charley Casserly: "He is as good a player as I saw here in the 23 years I've been here. There's no question he would be on any all-time Redskins team."

While Turner wasn't surprised by Harvey's decision, it came as a shock to many of his teammates, who honored him with a standing ovation after being told the news during a team meeting Wednesday night.

"It was real emotional," said linebacker Greg Jones. "It happened real sudden. Nobody was really expecting it. We lose a lot, just because of what we know about him: He played hard all the time, and he was a great person on and off the field."

Said defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield: "I don't think these younger guys realize what type of player and what type of guy we're losing.

"Ken was more than just a leader on and off the field for the guys. He always thought positive. Not one negative thing ever came out of his mouth."

Harvey was to count $2 million against the Redskins' salary cap this season. But he renegotiated his contract in July, accepting a reduced salary for the chance to play one more year in a scaled-back role.

Turner envisioned using Harvey on third downs only, which would have reduced his number of snaps from about 1,000 to 300, assuming his knee held up.

The injury still bothering him, Harvey didn't participate in the first eight days of training camp. His first day back, Aug. 4, he blew past left tackle Andy Heck on his first play in more than eight months.

But even as his return looked promising to others, Harvey continued to have doubts.

"You know your body," Harvey said. "When it comes to a point where you wake up, your knees are sore. . . .

"Even though someone else might think you look good, you just know. Maybe this was a little slow, or this doesn't feel the way it used to feel, or you just don't feel like you've got it. Then, it's time to say goodbye."

But having the chance to test himself one last time, he said, made his decision easier to bear.

"I tried to work as hard as I could," Harvey said. "I tried to look in the mirror and ask, `Did I do the best I could?' I did. And there are no regrets."

With his wife, Janice, and sons, Anthony and Marcus, sitting on the front row, Harvey made his retirement official during a news conference in the team meeting room at Redskin Park. Among those on hand were teammates Jones, Stubblefield, Marc Boutte, Darrell Green, Malcolm Hamilton, Kenard Lang, Rod Milstead, Derek Smith and former Redskins linebacker Monte Coleman.

"Knowing Ken the way I do, knowing the intensity of Ken, life after football is going to be very successful for him," Coleman said. "I'm here congratulating him because he has completed a milestone, but the race is still going."

Harvey's departure leaves the Redskins without a pass-rushing specialist four weeks before their Sept. 12 season opener against the Dallas Cowboys.

Redskins player personnel director Vinny Cerrato said there was no urgency to sign a pass rusher. Redskins officials would like to coax former Minnesota and San Francisco defensive end Chris Doleman out of retirement, but Doleman's $3-4 million asking price, they feel, is too steep. Doleman's agent, David Falk, could not be reached to comment.

"Will I touch bases with him in the future?" Cerrato asked about Doleman. "I don't really have any plans to within the next few days or anything. We evaluate it as we go. We're evaluating daily."

Defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has been impressed with the pass-rushing abilities of defensive end Marco Coleman, acquired in June, and backup Ndukwe Kalu.

"We'll see how they do in the preseason," Nolan said. "I'd like to think [an effective pass rush] would come out of the group we have."

CAPTION: HARVEY'S CAREER AT A GLANCE (This chart was not available)