There once was a position on the Washington Redskins roster that was unavailable. No vacancies, at least at the top. The job was quarterback, and only players named Sonny, Billy or Joe held it.

Today, for the first time since 1964, it belongs to someone else. The retirement announcement from Joe Theismann will be purely a formality. The job is Jay Schroeder's.

But, perhaps because everyone now has been reminded it takes only a second for a bone to snap, the story of the Redskins quarterbacks, circa 1986, takes on a decidedly democratic air.

To be sure, Schroeder is No. 1, Babe Laufenberg is No. 2, and rookie Mark Rypien is No. 3. Yet, because they all are relatively (in some cases, extremely) inexperienced, because they are about the same age and because Schroeder doesn't steal the cameras and microphones the way Theismann did, there's a feeling here that the gap between the starting quarterback and his backups has narrowed.

"Hey, I think it's my job to win or lose, but let's not forget about Babe and the other quarterbacks ," Schroeder reminded reporters the other day, just as he has since he became the starter last Nov. 18, when Theismann broke his right leg on a sack by Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants.

Laufenberg, who is 1 1/2 years older than Schroeder, naturally wants to start somewhere. Patience, perhaps, even more than arm strength or his ability to read defenses, is his greatest asset with this team.

"As a No. 2 quarterback -- I hope I'm that -- I think I'll see playing time now," Laufenberg said today. "First of all, you have all this blitzing going on, so quarterbacks are injured more, especially with minor things.

"Second, if you have the Bears on your schedule, your third, fourth and fifth quarterback will see action."

(The Redskins don't play the Bears this regular season.)

This is the first time since 1964 that the Redskins have not been led by Sonny Jurgensen, Billy Kilmer or Theismann. Jurgensen was with the team from 1964-74; Kilmer, 1971-78, and Theismann, 1974-85.

"A new era," quarterbacks coach Jerry Rhome called it.

And an economical one for Redskins management, too. If Theismann were to play this season, he would make a base salary of between $500,000 and $650,000, not including a roster bonus of $600,000.

It is believed Schroeder and Laufenberg will make $215,000 apiece this season (unless Schroeder's contract is renegotiated, which is expected), and Rypien, a promising sixth-round draft choice, will make about $100,000.

Added together, they will earn about $530,000 in 1986 in base salary. In other words, the Redskins now have three quarterbacks for the price of one.

Earlier this year, the Redskins had an opportunity to obtain the National Football League rights to former Tampa Bay quarterback Doug Williams.

Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse said he offered Williams, once coached by Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs when Gibbs was a Tampa Bay assistant under John McKay, to anyone who would give up a third-round pick in the 1986 draft.

The Redskins weren't interested, Culverhouse said. A Redskins official said tonight that he believed Culverhouse wanted a fourth-round choice, but in either case, the Redskins didn't want Williams.

Williams, who is best known for his strong arm, still has two years remaining on a lucrative contract with the Arizona Outlaws of the U.S. Football League.

But, even more importantly, the Redskins decided they wanted to see how good Laufenberg is before they considered a big-name, high-priced veteran.

They plan to give Laufenberg quite a bit of playing time in scrimmages the next two Saturdays, as well as in the preseason games.

Were it not for previous preseason games, Laufenberg would have no statistics; he never has played in a regular-season game.

Rhome, the former Tulsa passing whiz, backed up Don Meredith and Roger Staubach in Dallas, Bill Nelson in Cleveland, Charley Johnson in Houston and Roman Gabriel in Los Angeles.

"In eight years, I started a few games," he said. "I have the experience of knowing about getting ready for a game and not playing. I have that insight."

Perhaps, then, the perfect man for his job, Rhome has spent hundreds of hours throwing and catching with Schroeder and Laufenberg -- and now delights in the thought of working with Rypien, a picture-perfect passer from Washington State. A fourth quarterback, rookie free agent Stan Yagiello of William and Mary, also is in camp.

"As I told Jay again and again last year, 'It only takes one play. We've got to work our tails off even though no one pays any attention to us. There's that one possibility, and we know it's never going to happen.' But it did," Rhome said.

Rypien, who Gibbs says is closer to looking like "the perfect" quarterback than even Schroeder, says he has about 70 percent of the Redskins' system down now.

Laufenberg, who looks the least classic of all when he throws sidearm, which he does often, bides his time.

"I'm still young 26 and there's a lot of things that can happen," he said before wheeling away from the Dickinson College practice field on his black Schwinn.

And Schroeder knows the job is his. "I'm going in with the attitude I'm the guy," he said.

The transition developed slowly, but now it has come.

"Every time they complete a pass," said Rhome, "I'm completing one, too."