Forget those verbal tiffs involving Bush-Dukakis and Bentsen-Quayle. Among citizens of our nation's capital, the great debate of '88 is only now heating up. Who should quarterback the beloved Redskins? Veteran Doug Williams, who merely was MVP of the Super Bowl and had the Skins off to a 2-1 start before he underwent an emergency appendectomy on Sept. 21? Or the engaging upstart Mark Rypien, a 6'4", 234-pound second-year man out of Washington State who had never taken a snap in an NFL regular-season game until he was thrust into the starting role four weeks ago—and who now is the league's top-rated quarterback?
Rypien's four-touchdown, 303-yard passing performance on Sunday during Washington's 33-17 mashing of the are-they-for-real-or-not Phoenix Cardinals won't make Redskins coach Joe Gibbs's decision any easier when it comes time to pencil in a starter for Sunday's game against the Green Bay Packers. This is the first week that Williams is eligible to come off injured reserve. Rypien's statistics as a starter: 70 completions in 116 attempts (60.3%), 1,075 total yards, 9.27 yards per attempt, 12 touchdowns, three interceptions. Compare those to Williams's three-game log—66 completions in 125 attempts (52.8%), 860 total yards, 6.88 yards per attempt, four touchdowns, three interceptions—and you've got the makings of a controversy.
"When you've got a boss man who makes the decision, there's no controversy," says Williams, doing his best to defuse the issue with good humor—a trait that sets him apart from former Washington quarterback Jay Schroeder, who was traded to the Raiders on Sept. 5 after going into a funk when Williams took over as starter at the end of last season. Said Williams, "I had more controversy when I was growing up and my little brother and I wanted the same bed. Now, that's controversy."
Rypien, who sat out most of the fourth quarter on Sunday with bruised ribs, agrees. "Whatever decision the coach makes, I'll live with," he says. "Doug and I are both team players. But it'll be frustrating for one of us."
As for Gibbs, he was noncommittal when asked who would start against the Packers. "They've both done about everything you could ask them to," he said. "But I will say I've never had a young quarterback come in and play as consistently and as smart as Mark. Everything we dreamed he might do, he's done."
With Sunday's win, which put the Redskins in a three-way tie for first in the NFC East with the still-surprising Cardinals and the New York Giants—all have 4-3 records—Washington seems to have answered another hotly debated question: Which version of the defending Super Bowl champs is the real one? For a while it looked as if it might be the injury-riddled, mistake-prone team that started the season with a 2-3 record, had a minus-eight in turnover ratio after five games and lost twice to the archrival Giants. But now it appears that the real Redskins are the juggernaut that had manhandled the Cowboys in Dallas, 35-17, the week before the game against Phoenix.
"This is a team that's still trying to establish an identity," said broadcaster and former Redskins quarterback Sonny Jurgensen last Friday. "So far the Skins haven't had any continuity."
The lack of continuity has been partially a result of injuries; cornerback Barry Wilburn, defensive ends Charles Mann and Dexter Manley, tight end Don Warren, linebacker Monte Coleman, center Russ Grimm and punters Steve Cox and Tom Barnhardt have all sat out at various times this season. It has also been partially because of an offense that, until Sunday, had failed to come up with the game-breaking plays. Running back Timmy Smith, a hero of last year's Super Bowl, had averaged fewer than 3.5 yards per carry this season behind the vaunted Hogs, who had been shuffled around like so many piggies going to market because of the addition of tackle Jim Lachey, who came over from the Raiders in the Schroeder deal, and an injury to All-Pro guard R.C. Thielemann. During Washington's 30-21 loss to Phoenix on Sept. 25, the Cardinals' defensive line, led by end Freddie Joe Nunn, dominated the Hogs and held Washington to 53 yards rushing. "They stuffed us," says Rypien, who was tackled for a safety and had a fumble returned for a touchdown in an otherwise respectable NFL debut (303 yards, three TDs and one interception).
"The big thing about the Cardinals is they've changed the hand techniques they use on the defensive line," says Skins right guard Mark May. "They slap you around a little more. They're playing to win, not just to keep their jobs."
Winning is not exactly second nature to the Cards, who went all 28 of their years in St. Louis without so much as one playoff victory. But third-year coach Gene Stallings seems to have infused a bunch of old hands with new life since the team's move to Phoenix. Led by veteran quarterback Neil Lomax, running backs Stump Mitchell and Earl Ferrell, and wideouts Roy Green and J.T. Smith, Phoenix recovered from losses to the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cowboys at the start of the season to reel off four straight wins. During that streak, which was the Cardinals' longest since 1984 and gave them their best start since '76, Phoenix averaged 33 points a game. "Their offensive line is underrated," says Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard. "And big. Really big."