Joe Gibbs has been asked the question perhaps a hundred times since the end of last season and his first response is always the same: The Washington Redskins didn't change their offense last season, didn't actually switch from the bruising one-back attack of the John Riggins era to the three wide receiver alignment of this Art Monk-Gary Clark-Ricky Sanders era.

But press him on it, get him to roll it around in his mind, and the answer will change. Thinking over the matter one day last week at Redskin Park, Gibbs even began diagramming formations on the back of a press release to show all the different sets.

His bottom line was, yes, the Redskins had used a wide-open attack about 60 percent of the time last season, and, yes, they're likely to use it about 60 percent of the time again.

"You go with what's working," he said.

What once worked for the Redskins was a bullish ball-control offense that ate up yards and minutes, gave the defense long, refreshing rests and wore out opponents. It came to symbolize the Redskins under Gibbs.

What worked last season when Washington finished with five straight victories was what worked for a lot of NFL teams in the high-tech, Nintendo world of the late '80s: lots of jazzy sets, multilook formations and a passing game built around three 1,000-yard wide receivers and a hot young quarterback named Mark Rypien.

So this afternoon when the first wave of players reports to training camp in Carlisle, Pa., the Redskins will begin to welcome in the '90s with a team that is being revamped in many areas -- on the offensive line, where some new Hogs and some old Hogs likely will split playing time; in the offensive backfield, where Gerald Riggs, Earnest Byner and James Wilder may be forced to share the ball, at least for awhile; on a defensive line that has some new faces; and, finally, up and down a roster that's dotted with Plan B signees, rookies and young veterans that has team officials both excited and nervous about 1990.

But a lot of what the Redskins hope to be in 1990 is exactly what they were at the end of last season -- a team that may put the ball in the air and keep it there.

Camp will begin with eyes on Rypien, who finally wrestled the job from Doug Williams. He finished as the NFL's fifth-leading quarterback, with a 59 percent completion rate, 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

The Redskins hope this is just the beginning, especially since he opens camp as the clear-cut starter for the first time and is only 27.

All he has to work with is one of the best receiving corps in history, and if Kelvin Bryant can return from a season on injured reserve and contribute as a third-down specialist, the Redskins could have an offense that could rival the Joe Montana-Jerry Rice show in San Francisco.

What the Redskins hope for most is a season without distractions or crippling injuries. They had both last season and didn't get off to a good start this season when on Friday Sanders was charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault in connection with a May 1 incident outside a topless bar in Houston.

The Redskins, who refuse to comment publicly on the matter, don't believe Sanders will miss a day of practice because of it. Sanders and his attorneys appear confident no indictments will be returned, and even if they were, most such cases are settled before reaching trial. It appears the more serious matter is a civil suit that will be filed next week; that could take months or years to resolve.

The Redskins have expressed confidence in Sanders, but surely are furious at his lack of judgment and that his attention likely will be directed at things other than football, at least for awhile.

If the off-field distractions haven't changed, a lot of other things have, and they began after last season's 4-5 start. By the end of the year, the Redskins were younger and less experienced, not to mention 10-6.

"The way I feel is, it's going to be exciting," Gibbs said. "It looks like a strong crop of young guys that had a chance to play last year and can come in and make a real push this year. We also have some veteran guys to come in and help. You're not sure how it's going to wind up. It's not easy to say you have a set picture of the Redskins right now."

The easier part is knowing the recent past. The Redskins haven't been to the playoffs since winning Super Bowl XXII. They've lost four in a row and seven of their last nine to the New York Giants. They were 4-4 against NFC East opponents. They were 4-4 at RFK Stadium last season, 6-2 away from it.

They were an eyelash from 12-4, but also an eyelash from 8-8. If Riggs hadn't fumbled in the final moments against Philadelphia . . . if they hadn't dozed through an inexcusable loss to the winless Cowboys . . . if there had been one fewer turnover against the Giants or Broncos. . . .

"It's a fine line," center Jeff Bostic said, "and what happened to us didn't make sense in some ways. I mean, going 4-4 at home? We're better than that. One explanation is that the league is better from top to bottom and you don't ever have an easy week. You have a letdown, you get beat."

The Redskins now have six weeks to look for solutions to those problems. But they'd better find them in a hurry. For the second straight year, their schedule is arranged for television, with their most important games coming in the fall sweeps period.

They play the Giants and Eagles four times in five weeks and likely will have their fate determined by Week 9. The good news is if they survive that stretch, they probably could sail into the playoffs with the Cowboys, Patriots and Colts remaining on the schedule.

The bad news, indeed the awful news for Gibbs, is that his teams traditionally have started slowly and finished fast. If they start slowly this year, a fast finish might not be window dressing for another season without postseason cash.

"We {the NFL} sold out to TV ratings," Gibbs said. "We're going to deal with it the best we can and it may be the best thing in the world for us. But if you ask me now, I say the schedule is kind of ridiculous."

Asked if he had any answers about the slow starts, he shook his head.

"I think about it all the time," he said. "This is the 10th year of trying to find an answer."

Most of the other answers aren't so difficult, but as the Redskins begin this camp, they do have decisions to make in every area. Quarterback: Rypien is the starter and highly regarded Stan Humphries the backup. Veteran Jeff Rutledge was signed after Williams's release and probably will make the team. Fourth-round pick Cary Conklin may be headed for the developmental squad unless NFL owners do away with that at their meeting next week. Running back: Byner begins as the starter, but one of the most interesting problems of camp will be in figuring out how to get playing time for Riggs, Byner and Plan B free agent Wilder. It's likely all of them will play, and in games in which the Redskins want to imitate the Riggo era, Riggs could carry 35 times. Wide receiver: If Sanders can clear up his troubles, this easily is the teams' top position. Veteran Walter Stanley was signed via Plan B and will return punts. There also are several youngsters, including Joe Howard, Percy Waddle and Paul Smith. Tight end: Another strong area, with Don Warren and Jimmie Johnson returning and Plan B signee and former Redskin Ron Middleton back to give Gibbs the big, strong blocker he likes. Offensive line: With Joe Jacoby and Mark May coming off knee operations, eight players may rotate. Jeff Bostic and Russ Grimm are ready and the Redskins want to see more of youngsters Mark Schlereth, Ray Brown and Ed Simmons. Defensive line: Charles Mann has a new contract, Darryl Grant is unsigned and Dexter Manley's ban won't be lifted until Nov. 18 at the earliest. The Redskins are hoping that last year's new faces, Tracy Rocker and Fred Stokes, play well and that Plan B free agents Jumpy Geathers, Pat Swoopes and Milford Hodge will fit in. Geathers is coming off a knee operation and may not be ready until early in the season. Linebacker: Only Wilber Marshall started every game last season and the Redskins again will use a lot of players here. Top draft pick Andre Collins will be worked in somewhere as will Plan B signee Kevin McArthur. Secondary: Cornerback Darrell Green's recovery from wrist surgery and the acquisition of safety Brad Edwards (Plan B) give coaches more options. A.J. Johnson, expected to start at the corner opposite Green, is out for the year after reconstructive knee surgery, so Martin Mayhew will get first crack at the job. Kicking: No changes. Chip Lohmiller is the kicker, Ralf Mojsiejenko the punter. Coach: Boss Hog Joe Bugel left to coach the Cardinals and Gibbs has brought in Jim Hannifan to work with the line and Rod Dowhower to work with the quarterbacks.

And Gibbs will be beginning his 10th year on the job. After dropping hints about retiring -- hints he says were misinterpreted -- he says he's as excited as ever.

"Sometimes I feel like I've been here a long time and sometimes I feel like I just got here," he said. "Ten years is something you're proud of, but 20? . . . There's not too many guys like that. That's what made a guy like {Tom} Landry so special. He could have gone forever. I'd see him late in the season and I'd look like a whipped dog. He'd be standing over there polished with his hat on, looking like there'd been no wear and tear at all. {Don} Shula seems to thrive on it. {Chuck} Noll and {Chuck} Knox are like that. I think those are the guys that everyone in coaching would like to be like, to make it that long and do that good a job with all the different guys they've worked with. That's the challenge for all of us in the business."