CHAPEL HILL, N.C., AUG. 10 -- Mark Rypien has served his two seasons in the storage closet of injured reserve and has spent a season holding a clipboard for Doug Williams. He has been benched for fumbling and he has put up some of the best numbers the Washington Redskins have ever had from a quarterback.

About all Rypien hasn't done in his 20 starts is take the Redskins to the playoffs, which is one reason he will be one of several players under the microscope when they open the preseason schedule against the Atlanta Falcons at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at soldout Kenan Stadium.

Rypien is coming off a season when he answered a lot of those questions, passing for the second-highest number of yards in franchise history (3,768), completing 58.8 percent of his passes and finishing as the NFL's fifth-highest rated quarterback.

Yet, he was at his best down the stretch, against five non-playoff teams at a time when the Redskins had been all but eliminated from the postseason sweepstakes.

Quarterbacks are measured differently from other players, and for the Redskins, that measuring stick is getting them into the playoffs. Rypien knows that is how he ultimately will be measured and said he welcomes the challenge that has come strapped to his shoulders this season.

"This is the biggest step in my career right here," he said. "I've earned the chance and now it's up to me to do well. I have to perform. I have to show them I should be the guy."

His performance may be the first one Joe Gibbs and his coaching staff grade and it may be the most critical. But this preseason will be a time for answering a lot of questions for a team beginning what its head coach calls "a period of transition."

That is true in the offensive and defensive lines, the secondary and the offensive backfield. But a lot of this preseason schedule will be devoted to watching how Rypien handles what should be his first full season as the Washington starter.

Since Rypien and Stan Humphries are his only healthy quarterbacks, Gibbs does not have to juggle playing time. He said he would "go with Rypien until I go with Stan. I don't know how long that'll be. I just do it by feel."

It is the first of several chances for Rypien to show he is the one capable of taking the Redskins back to the playoffs. After watching Jay Schroeder, Williams and others, Rypien said he has learned a lot about the burdens placed on the most visible player on a highly visible team.

He said he learned "you're a role model whether you like it or not," and that "you're going to have less privacy than you did before." He has also seen enough to know that when the Redskins have been out of the playoffs two years in a row, every player, especially the quarterback, will be scrutinized.

He learned that lesson when fumbles put him on the bench after an embarrassing loss to the Los Angeles Raiders last season, and while he could have reacted a dozen different ways, the way he chose -- refusing to sulk, studying films and trying "to get an alarm clock in my head about when to eat the ball" -- may have won him more respect than any of his 22 touchdown passes.

"I was not being cheated of anything," he said. "I was on the bench for a reason, and I was determined that if I got back in there, I was going to correct the problem. I'd just like to think the way I played against the Raiders is uncharacteristic of me and not the way I'll usually play."

And now . . .

"At this point, consistency is the thing," he said. "We made a lot of big plays when I was in there last year, but it all comes down to doing what you need to do to win the game. That's what I've tried to think about during this camp and it has been a different camp. I haven't had someone looking over my shoulder. It also comes down to how you perform and I know how much they think of Stan. You can't ever sit back and think the job is yours. It's a constant learning process."

Humphries has been careful to avoid a me-versus-him argument, saying only that he will get a chance to play "and hopefully, I'll make the most of it. I can't do anything about the way Mark plays. All I can do is make the playoffs myself."

The Redskins face dozens of other decisions, especially in the offensive line, where veteran Russ Grimm is trying to hold off a challenge from Raleigh McKenzie and good performances from youngsters like Ed Simmons and Mark Schlereth might make it hard for veterans like Joe Jacoby and Mark May to get their jobs back.

Jacoby and May have spent this camp on the sidelines, both recovering from knee surgery. Jacoby may return to practice next week, but it remains to be seen how much he will play even if healthy.

There also will be a spotlight on several defensive areas. With tackle Darryl Grant holding out and projected starters Fred Stokes and Tracy Rocker injured, the Redskins will look at some players who probably expected no more than a glimpse of preseason duty.

One of them is rookie Kent Wells, a 6-foot-4, 295-pound sixth-round draft pick from Nebraska who will start in Grant's right tackle position. Plan B signees Milford Hodge and Pat Swoopes and veteran free agent Alonzo Mitz also will get good looks against the Falcons.

"This is a good chance for those guys," Gibbs said. "We'll get to see a guy like Wells up against NFL opposition."

Wells, an all-Big Eight football player and the Big Eight shot put champion last year, said he welcomes the chance.

"I like a situation where the spotlight is on me," he said. "This is an opportunity and I'm happy I have it. It's still a team game. I'll be surrounded by some pretty good people out there, so maybe we can draw off each other."

There also may be changes in the secondary, where starters Darrell Green and Martin Mayhew are the only proven commodities and opportunity awaits veteran free agent Roy Bennett, rookie free agent Alvoid Mays and others.

General Manager Charley Casserly has worked the telephones this week to check on the availability of defensive linemen and cornerbacks, but the NFL is not much for bartering these days.

Casserly also doesn't seem inclined to trade away any of his surpluses -- offensive linemen, quarterbacks, receivers and running backs. But that may change, depending on how well the young Redskins play.

The Redskins face a different kind of decision in the offensive backfield, where three veterans -- Earnest Byner, Gerald Riggs and James Wilder -- are competing for one spot.

"We should find out a lot of things the next few weeks," Gibbs said. "It'll be a learning process for some of these guys, but you learn a lot about them by how they stack up to top competition."