Washington Redskins quarterback Doug Williams sprained his back during practice yesterday, and his status is uncertain for Sunday's game against the New York Giants.

Williams, who said his back was stiff during last Monday night's game against the Los Angeles Rams, developed muscle spasms yesterday after taking a snap from center and twisting around on the first play of practice. Coach Joe Gibbs said he will "wait and see" how Williams feels today before deciding on Sunday's starting quarterback.

Gibbs said Jay Schroeder, who was benched nearly two weeks ago, will start if Williams' health doesn't improve. And if Williams can't suit up, the Redskins will activate second-year quarterback Mark Rypien from the injured reserve list.

"{Williams will start} if he feels good and feels he can," Gibbs said yesterday. "If it's bothering him and he's uncomfortable or whatever, then . . . "

Gibbs added that he's been pleased with Schroeder's progress. Schroeder was replaced by Williams with seven minutes left in the first half of the Redskins' game against the Detroit Lions, Nov. 15. Since then, Gibbs said Schroeder has been "excellent, working hard."

Gibbs said yesterday he would have no qualms about starting Schroeder. "None, none at all," he said. "That's why we have two good quarterbacks."

Schroeder, who took most of the work during yesterday's practice, declined comment.

Williams, who said it was painful just sitting down, walked gingerly to his car after practice yesterday, wearing a heavy corset.

"Timing's bad," he said. "This was the opportunity I'd been waiting for. I guess all it does is put everything in perspective, what has always happened for me. Once you get up, you're down again."

Williams said his back had been stiff before Monday night's Rams game, and a "couple of hits here and there" didn't help.

"Maybe I'm beginning to act my age," said Williams, 32, who said he's never had back problems.

Trainer Bubba Tyer said Williams "sprained ligaments" in his back, which caused the spasms. He said Williams had a hard time bending over, which is why there was some concern.

"It'll be sore, sure," Tyer said. 'Don't expect him to be 100 percent in three days, but you'd expect that he'll probably be able to play."

Williams didn't rule out the possibility of playing, yet he was somewhat skeptical since the injury occurred late in the week. "That it happened on a Thursday or Friday puts a lot of pressure on the situation as far as playing," Williams said. "Because if you can't practice {yesterday} or Friday or Saturday, it's going to be tough {to play}.

"I don't think it'll make a lot of difference {missing practice}, but by the same token, if you miss, that's some valuable time to miss. Friday's tune-up day. If you're not going to tune up, it's obvious it's gonna be tough. I mean, I'd love to be ready for Sunday. I'm not saying I won't be. Mentally, I think I'll be, but physically is the most important point, I would say."

Teammates were sympathetic toward Williams, but there was no outward alarm. Williams passed for more than 300 yards against the Rams Monday night, but the Redskins have lost both games he has started.

"Both {Williams and Schroeder} have been good quarterbacks," center Jeff Bostic said. "I don't see a big to-do if Doug can't go."

Williams was in such a sour mood, many of his teammates kept wishing him a "Happy Thanksgiving." Williams said: "I wish it was."

It's likely the Redskins will use rookie running Tim Jessie on kickoff returns, alongside Keith Griffin. The Redskins normally put only one returner deep, flanked by two other players about 10 yards in front. Now, they figure two deep men might be better than one.

Jessie, an ex-replacement player, is another in the long line of Auburn running backs, except he had horrible timing. He arrived at Auburn the same year as eventual Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson and then shared time with Brent Fullwood.

As a result, he had only 87 carries in his first three seasons there. His senior year, paired with Fullwood, he carried the ball 61 times for 282 yards and three touchdowns. . . .

Gibbs said it's possible punter Steve Cox will resume kicking off instead of Ali Haji-Sheikh, although a final decision won't be made until Saturday.