It has been 18 days since Doug Williams lost his starting quarterback job with the Washington Redskins, 18 days since he turned away from reporters with tears welling in his eyes, 18 days since he returned to what apparently is his destiny with the team: second string.

Each day, Williams moves farther from the disappointment of Nov. 30 and closer to a possible decision about his future in the National Football League, a future that looks brighter somewhere else, he acknowledges. Each day, he opens more fan mail, letters that congratulate him on the "class" he has shown the past three weeks. Each day, he bites his lip and refuses to complain or say that what happened to him was not fair. "I'll never say that," he said.

In an interview yesterday in front of his Redskin Park locker, Williams said he harbors no illusions about regaining the starting job he lost to Jay Schroeder when he injured his lower back after taking a snap from center on Thanksgiving Day.

"{Coach Joe Gibbs} is going to go with Jay unless he gets hurt," Williams said. "He's his starter . . . Coach Gibbs won't make a change again. Why? It's something I probably should keep to myself. I just think from a personal standpoint that he would not make that decision. Coach Gibbs is an easygoing, noncontroversial type of person. He doesn't like attention as far as what decision he makes. They've invested a lot in Jay. Jay is the future."

That's why, when the season is over, Williams wonders where he will be.

"I think that's one of the reasons why I don't think I will be here next year, although I didn't think I would be here this year. It will be interesting to see what happens after the season, how many times my phone or {General Manager} Bobby Beathard's phone rings and whether anybody's willing to give Doug Williams an opportunity to play in the National Football League."

Williams said he is not asking for a trade and does not want to create any controversy. But, matter-of-factly, he said, "When I think about 28 quarterbacks in this league, I don't think there are 10 better than me."

Williams has one more year left on a contract that pays him $475,000, about half of what Schroeder makes. "I'm a high-paid backup," he said. "I wouldn't mind being an average-paid starter. That would be another $200,000."

As always, the Los Angeles Raiders are on Williams' mind. "You can be average and play for the Raiders," he said. "With Bo Jackson, Marcus Allen and the defense they got, hey, I can go to sleep."

But, for now, Williams is a Redskin. He smiled when reminded he said Gibbs told him he was the starter on the Saturday before the Redskins played the New York Giants, then was relegated by Gibbs to the backup position two days later.

"Coach Gibbs is human. He's got a right to change his mind. I've changed my mind sometimes, too. But I've still got to deal with it, regardless. I could have gotten mad and said, 'Coach, screw it, I'm through, I quit, I'm not playing anymore, bring up Rip {reserve quarterback Mark Rypien}, I'm gone.' But what would I have proved?"

When Williams met with Gibbs the Monday after the Giants' game to hear he was being demoted because of Schroeder's performance in that game, he said he told Gibbs, "Coach, you make the decision and we'll live with it."

Some publicly have wondered why Williams decided not to play against the Giants, knowing he might lose the job he won when Schroeder was benched two weeks earlier -- former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, for one: ". . . Somebody else can come in and do a great job and you may never get back there," Theismann said.

Williams said he has no second thoughts, that he simply wasn't healthy enough to put on a uniform.

"That day, I could not play, regardless of what Joe Theismann or Sonny Jurgensen or whoever might say or what they would have done," Williams said. "Doug Williams couldn't play. I feel I've got enough of a reputation over the past few years to know. I've played hurt. I've played with my jaw wired shut. Pain doesn't bother Doug Williams. If I could have played, I would have played, without a doubt."

Williams and Gibbs have known each other since 1978, when Williams was a rookie at Tampa Bay and Gibbs was an assistant coach there. They describe themselves as friends. But Williams said it is wrong to think that their friendship thrives at Redskin Park.

"Our relationship has not been strained by this," he said. "I don't talk too much with Coach Gibbs. I'm not trying to be a good guy so he can play me because we're friends. If he plays me, I want him to play me because I'm the best player.

"Coach doesn't say a lot to me. I don't say a lot to Coach. We go to meetings and when he discusses something, he says, 'Hear that, Doug?' I say, 'Yeah, Coach.' "

In the first three or four days after he lost the starting job, Williams said he received about 150 letters. "Of the 150, I had only one bad apple." Someone wrote in calling Williams names and telling him to retire and go home.

"No name, no address," Williams said.

The rest were uplifting.

"We've been fans all our lives and we've never written a letter to a player before . . ," one began.

Another: "We admired the way you handled yourself . . .

Another: "We watch you on the sideline and compare the way you get involved in the game when you're not playing with the way Jay Schroeder took it when he was benched . . ."

Said Williams: "I'm going to be a better person for what has happened to me in football. Football is my livelihood, my job. A good start. But I think I'm a better person than I am a football player."