If Archie Manning is the Huck Finn of pro football, as the New Orleans Saints bill their star quarterback, then the Redskins' Mark Murphy could be the NFL's Tom Sawyer.

Both Manning and Murphy are unpretentious, easygoing, good ol' boys, even if one is the product of the Deep South and the other the snow climate of Buffalo.

Murphy's idea of a big splurge? A new jeep, not a Mercedes. Manning's vision of heaven on earth? A quiet watering hole where fish are fighting to catch the bait.

Both are freckle-faced redheads with the perpetual-youth look of Mark Twain's heroes.

Of course, there are some differences. Manning, now a pro star, was a college All-American, a glamor boy, a sure-hit NFL prospect. Murphy, half-way through his first year as a Redskin starter at free safety, was a free agent from little Colgate who hardly excited scouts with his athletic talents. a

On Sunday, the two will embark on an afternoon of cat-and-mouse shenanigans. Manning will be trying tooutguess Washington's talented secondary with his audibles while murphy, standing 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage staring Manning in the eye, will be yelling out counter moves on almost every play.

On paper, it would seem like a mis-match, the master against the beginner. But like Tom Sawyer, Murphy is no one's fool, particularly on the football field.

"He's doing a tremendous job out there directing our coverages," said Richie Petitbon, the club's secondary coach. "It's a tough job, because you have to make quick decisions depending on their receiver alignments, and then you have to make sure everyone hears the call. But he's been great at it."

Murphy's quick mind is one reason he was handed the free safety job, which last year belonged to veteran star Jake Scott. The team waived Scott, a gambler with little discipline, and counted on the development of this 24-year-old youngster, who had been in for only five regular-season plays at the position in his career.

The Redskins have been rewarded by steady, sometimes impressive, play from Murphy, who leads the team in tackles (48) halfway through the season. And Petibon, one of Murphy's biggest training camp boosters, remains high on his protege.

"He'll keep getting better as he gets more confident," Petitbon said, "but we are really pleased with him. he's a much better tackler than Jake and he's so more disciplined. That makes a big difference when we set up our defenses.

"The other guys like him, too. they all get along and that helps when you are trying to coordinate your cover- ages."

Without Murphy's consistency, Washington would not be able to play as much man-to-man defense. The Redskins like to put pressure on receivers, delaying their patterns and giving the front four more time to rush the passer. But close coverage is a gamble. If the cornerback loses his man, only Murphy stands between him and the goal line.

"Murphy is always where he is supposed to be," said cornerback Lemar Parrish. "He gives us all confidence he makes you feel like you can go after your guy and not worry about being embarrassed.

"You need to know that there is help coming from somewhere else and that it will be there all the time. He comes through all the time."

At 6-foot-4, Murphy can roam the field with giant strides, much as a center fielder patrols the outfield. A standout basketball player, he showed his athletic ability against Atlanta, where he batted away a handful of long Steve Bartkowski passes with graceful leaps, foregoing interceptions to rely instead on the sure knock-downs.

"I am disappointed a little that I only have one interception," Murphy said. "These will come, I think.

"I'm getting a little more aggresive the last few weeks. I'm coming up better and going after the ball better.

"Before, I was so conscious of the long pass that it hindered me.I just didn't want to get beat deep. But maybe my confidence is better. I know every week I feel I'm improving."

Still, Murphy is not about to become more reckless. Although he has the physical capabilities of turning into a big-play man for the team, that talent will develop more in future seasons. For now, he is content to serve as the cornerback's safety valve.

"If I miss a tackle or an assignment, that pretty much determines that a play will become a big one," he said. "So I'd rather let the corners gamble, knowing that I'm back there helping them out. It's more of a risk for me if I'm wrong."

Murphy has put in a healthy chunk of study time this week, preparing for Manning and an offense both the Redskins and their free safety feel is the best and most versatile they've faced this season.

That preparation time will result in about 15 to 20 audible calls on Murphy's part during Sunday's game, if form off the first eight games holds true. So far, his changes have worked out fine.

And audibilizing represents a mental challenge, something Murphy relishes.

"I've been calling these things since college and now it's a part of me," he said. "I was even doing it here with the second unit. It certainly helps to get you into the game. There is no room to let down."

Especially against a quarterback like Manning.

"He goes deep better than anyone we've faced," Murphy said with proper respect. "He's got so many weapons in his offense. I better not guess wrong much on Sunday or it will be a long game."