Before he made the switch, Joe Gibbs says he had no trouble sleeping nights on the sofa bed in his Redskin Park office. He was not obsessed with visions of Jay Schroeder overthrowing receivers or thoughts of Doug Williams coming out of the bullpen to save a game. To him, his current quarterback problem was like so many of the personnel decisions he had had to make in seven seasons as head coach of the Washington Redskins. It caused loads of publicity, but, internally, it was just another coach's choice. "We've switched running backs, linebackers, wide receivers . . . " he said.

Jay Schroeder had no idea he was going to be benched if he didn't get off to a quick start in the Detroit game. He's not saying he should have known, but the fact is he had no clue. Gibbs never said a word. To bring up such a subject would have been a mistake, Gibbs said: "You don't like a quarterback looking over his shoulder." Thus, Schroeder said he was "shocked" when Gibbs told him. Schroeder took it hard a week ago, and he still is taking it hard.

Doug Williams was as stunned as Schroeder, for all the opposite reasons. At 32, he figured his last chance to start in the National Football League had come and gone in early September, when the Redskins vetoed a trade with the Los Angeles Raiders. Through a life of triumph and tragedy, Williams has acquired a wonderful sense of perspective. "Things could be worse," Williams often says. But, at the seven-minute mark of the first half of a game in jam-packed RFK Stadium, things couldn't have been much better.

Last Sunday, circumstances pulled Gibbs, Schroeder and Williams into a high-stakes drama that stretched the bounds of competition, teamwork and friendship. One man, age 46, decided to take the quarterback job away from a 26-year-old phenom and give it to a trusted 32-year-old backup. The fact that it happened at one of the most visible jobs in Washington didn't make it any easier.

Williams, the veteran, won the game and the job, at least for the time being. But when the game was over, the controversy had only begun. And all three began to live with it. They've worked together every day since mid-July, Gibbs, Schroeder and Williams. Their goal is the same. But they are quite different people.

It used to be that Gibbs would have agonized over what to do with a young quarterback in a slump. The coaching decision would not have been so difficult for him, but the public reaction would have been.

"I always kind of wanted everyone around to think I was doing a good job," Gibbs said. "I've come to understand in this job, there's always going to be somebody or a group that's going to be saying I made the wrong decision, that I'm not doing a good job. That used to hurt me. I wanted to rebel. I got my pride hurt and wanted to fight back.

"I think I'm better at that now," he continued. "I know that it's always going to be there, and I don't fight it."

Indeed, Gibbs brought up the quarterback situation in his news conference the day after Schroeder's 16-for-46 performance at Philadelphia, and unwaveringly endured countless questions on the topic last week after the Detroit game.

The word, Gibbs said, is "maturity." In his seven seasons, he has learned to handle things he used to have trouble with. Says the coach: "I think I'm better now at putting things in perspective. I don't go through the anxiety of something going wrong as much as I used to."

If Gibbs had it to do over, he said he would have changed only one thing in his Williams-for-Schroeder decision. He would have made the switch, but he would have told the quarterbacks that Williams was going to start the Monday night game before he told the media. Wanting to nip a quarterback controversy in the bud, he announced Williams as his starter in his post-game news conference. Gibbs ended up surprising both of his players, and he regrets that.

Schroeder and Gibbs did talk, the following day, in Gibbs' office. Schroeder was angry. He hadn't uttered a public word since he was pulled, but his body language on the sideline spoke volumes, and so did his fast getaway from the locker room after the game. He has a contract to speak with WMAL radio after the game. He broke the contract, and kept right on walking.

Schroeder's behavior surprised no one. "I wouldn't want a quarterback to be happy about something like this," Gibbs said.

But when Schroeder did return to the public eye to talk Monday night, one thing he said did surprise some. When he was asked to evaluate his relationship with his coach, the quarterback said, "I think that's all going to be determined on what happens in the future. Who's to say what's going to happen? You come back in and you play well, and everything's going to be forgotten. And no one's going to care about {Sunday}. But it all depends on what happens in the future, and I plan on making the future very bright."

Schroeder wasn't happy, and it registered in what he said. But Gibbs did not sound as concerned about their relationship.

"It's been a real credit to him the way he's handled everything," Gibbs said after Friday's practice. "The guy could have easily swelled up and pouted. He hasn't, and that's good for the team."

Since taking over when Joe Theismann broke his leg two years and four days ago, Schroeder has grown increasingly combative with some reporters. When he first joined the team in 1984, Schroeder would sit in the public relations office for hours, chatting with his best friend, assistant public relations director John Konoza, and any reporters who came by. He was constantly smiling and willing to talk. Now, with many more demands on his time, Schroeder usually makes himself scarce when the press is present and is known as a tough interview.

Is he the same with his team? Offensive tackle Mark May says Schroeder is "as cool as a cucumber," and he means it as a compliment. Some have wondered if success has changed Schroeder. "Baloney," says May.

This season, Schroeder signed a contract for nearly $1 million a year, opened a restaurant, bought a house in Great Falls and gained a certain celebrity around town. It was quite a change for a young family man who was pumping gas less than four years ago, trying to find himself after failing as a minor-league baseball player. Was it too much too soon?

"People can say whatever they want," Schroeder said. "All the people that are second-guessing have never been in this situation. I don't worry about it. I don't care what other people say. I go out and do my job."

There are no questions about how Williams is dealing with his sudden good fortune. "Doug can handle almost anything," Gibbs said.

Williams and Gibbs have been friends for nine years, since Gibbs went to scout him as a senior at Grambling, and found his prospective quarterback student teaching in Monroe, La. Gibbs coached Williams in his rookie year when both were with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and often had Williams over to watch films late into the evening. When the U.S. Football League disbanded last year and Williams became available, Gibbs told owner Jack Kent Cooke he wanted that man as his backup quarterback, and Cooke obliged, paying Williams more than $400,000 a year.

Sometimes it takes players a while to gain the respect of teammates, but not so Williams. He readily accepted the backup role, presented an appreciative public profile and rolled up his sleeves. "Doug to me is hungry to learn more," said quarterbacks coach Jerry Rhome.

Williams is pleased to be with an organization like the Redskins after spending five up-and-down years with Tampa Bay and two more in the USFL. He would have liked to have been traded to start for the Raiders, but he knew Gibbs wanted him as an "insurance policy." Now, Williams says with a smile, "I'm paying dividends."

Williams appears to step outside himself when looking at his situation, a rarity for pro athletes. "I've learned that no matter who you are, what you are, what you've got, anything can happen that you can't control," he said.

Williams speaks from tragic experience. In 1983, Janice, his wife of 11 months, died of brain cancer. She woke up one day with a headache. Within days, she was diagnosed as having a brain tumor. A week after undergoing surgery, she was dead. She left her husband and a 3-month-old daughter, Ashley.

Williams gradually rebuilt his life. He remarried this past offseason. He began to plan for life after football, to think about coaching high school or college football. And then he became a starter again.

"No matter how bad you have it, somebody always has it worse," Williams said the other day.

Perhaps this is why Rhome says Williams is "looser" than Schroeder. "As far as joking around and laughing, off the field, Doug's looser. But both are serious-minded on the field," Rhome said.

Williams and Schroeder don't spend much, if any, time together off the field or out of the meeting room, Williams said. "We never go out and drink beer together or anything like that. On the practice field, he or I might say a couple words here and there. That's about it . . . That's not so unusual. I can't remember myself playing on a team where myself and the second-team quarterback hung out together."

With Williams and Schroeder, the single-most common denominator might be the job they have held. One has it, the other wants it back.

"I wasn't making a million dollars a year, I didn't have a lot of things going in the public, I didn't go to the Pro Bowl," Williams said. "I've never been to the Pro Bowl. The diamonds are still out there for me. I've never had a lot of things going my way to take a long fall."