It has been four years since Joe Gibbs worked with quarterback Doug Williams at Tampa Bay, four years in which Williams has matured from a scrambling rookie to a pro star.

But Williams still remembers that one season with Gibbs, then Tampa Bay's offensive coordinator. It was 1978, six months after the Buccaneers decided to break tradition and draft a black quarterback on the first round.

"Coach Gibbs came to Louisiana and visited with me a week before the draft," Williams said. "I think he saw my athletic ability and my potential. He went back to Tampa and told them, 'Here's the guy to build the team around.' He's the reason I'm here, and I'm glad about that.

"So much came up that first year. I wasn't alert or smart enough to see all the things he could do with an offense. The only bad thing is we only had one year together. I wonder what it would be like if we had stayed together longer. But I realized even in that short time that he's a player's coach and a great person."

Five games into the 1981 season, Joe Gibbs was sitting in the living room of his Vienna home, wondering once more how his debut as coach of the Redskins could have turned into an 0-5 start. He heard a knock on the door. It was 11 p.m.

Quarterback Joe Theismann was standing outside. He asked Gibbs if they could talk.

They sat for an hour, reviewing what had happened and discussing their still very tentative relationship.

"I felt like there wasn't a total and complete understanding of each other," Theismann said. "We really hadn't had a chance to talk and we needed to. We had to get a chance to know each other."

Gibbs: "It was a difficult period. I was looking at Joe and wondering how good he was. Was this the guy you'd stake your career on? Is this the guy you want to be living with for the rest of your career?

"I'm sure he was wondering just how smart we really were, and what we really expected of him. Things were shaky, no question about it. We were both sitting back, not sure of what was going on."

That talk, the two agree, was the beginning of a better relationship. The next week, the Redskins won. Theismann finished the season with the second-best statistics of any quarterback in team history. He began this year with what he considers the best game of his career: 382 yards passing against Philadelphia last week.

"Joe Gibbs stuck with me," Theismann said. "He has let me become a bigger part of our offense, bigger than I was used to previously. I've grown because of what he's done for me."

Sunday, Gibbs' proteges will play vital parts when Washington plays at Tampa Bay. Gibbs is aware of the unusual situation.

"When the game starts, I won't be thinking about Doug," said Gibbs, who became San Diego's offensive coordinator in 1979. "But I've always been interested in his progress. We have talked quite a bit since I left Tampa. It used to be about every three weeks until I came here. He got to know my wife and kids real well and he feels close to them.

"Both Doug and Joe are smart, real smart. They work awfully hard. They want to be the best. Nothing has been handed to them; they've gone after it. You can see that by their progress."

Williams was not a sensation his rookie year. He completed only 38 percent of his passes and threw one more interception (eight) than touchdown pass. He also suffered a broken jaw just as he was starting to feel comfortable.

"Our offensive line wasn't very good and the backs weren't great receivers, so it wasn't the best situation for a rookie quarterback," Gibbs said. "Still, there were things Doug would do in practice that would get everyone talking. He'd see a crack in the coverage 40 yards downfield and zip, the ball would be there.

"I know he feels I was responsible for him being drafted, but all I did was gather information. Coach (John) McKay made the decision, and it was a gutty one. I've always admired him for it."

Williams: "Coach Gibbs will look at you and tell you straight about how you are playing. He'll pat you if you do well. He can inspire you, he can get you to play well because you want a lot of pats."

At 6-feet-4 and 215 pounds, Williams is a strong, durable quarterback with an overwhelming throwing arm. At 5-11 and 195, Theismann has to rely more on guile, although he, too, is blessed with uncommon athletic talents.

"Joe has worked his way into our hearts with the way he's come along," Gibbs said. "It's a confidence thing now. For our offense to work, he has to make the right decisions. There usually are four or five receivers he can go to and he had to learn to take what is there and not force it when nothing comes up. He prepares as well as anyone I know for a game and it shows."

Theismann: "Joe Walton (the Redskins' former offensive coordinator) was the first man to teach me to play quarterback the right way. Joe Gibbs has taken me another step. He lets me use my athletic ability. If a situation comes up, he gives me that little extra freedom to go with it and make the most of it. It's hard not to feel loyalty to a man who treats you like that."

Gibbs said a decision will be made today about cornerback Joe Lavender, who has a hamstring pull and has not practiced all week. It is likely Lavender will be placed on the taxi squad for the game unless his injury is much improved . . . Running back Joe Washington has begun full rehabiliation following surgery and reports his injured knee "is feeling much better."