The Washington Redskins were granted their fondest, yet strangest, wish yesterday. They are going to find out if they have a great quarterback playing behind their good one. Stan Humphries is getting his Big Chance. For that to happen, Mark Rypien had to get hurt. Not very badly it seems. And not for very long. But just enough. Welcome to pro football, where one man's pain is another man's gain.

For a couple of years, Washington has had an ugly problem -- almost a moral quandary. True Redskins fans wanted to find out why Bobby Beathard -- Certified Personnel Genius -- was always winking, waving his arms and panting whenever he mentioned Humphries.

People just naturally wanted to find out why. And now they will. How nice.

Of course, nobody wanted anything bad to happen to Rypien, since he's as nice a guy as Jay Schroeder isn't, and because he passed for 3,768 yards last year. Which isn't bad if you ignore his 1,111 fumbles. (Plus one last week. Yes, we're still counting.)

The Cowboys nicked Rypien. That's the technical NFL term for what happens when a 276-pound man bends your knee in a whole new direction. Barring divine intervention, Humphries will play next week against Phoenix. And he will probably start two or three games after that too.

"Rip has a hyper-extended knee. Looks like no structural damage. But those get really sore. He's going to be out for a while," said Coach Joe Gibbs. Later, as an educated guess, Gibbs added, "I think four or five weeks."

The perfect amount of time.

To give Humphries a fair shot.

To make, or ruin, a season.

To decide, or create, a classic quarterback controversy.

"We'll see what Stan's got. He's had three years to get ready. Let's hope he's ready," said Gibbs. "This is his chance now to step up. We've invested a lot in him. Now he's going to have to earn his meal check."

"It's time for me to put up or shut up," said Humphries, whose five-of-13 performance for 58 yards in the 19-15 win can't be graded because four passes were dropped.

The Redskins have had plenty of quarterback debates. Every permutation of the names Sonny, Billy, Joe, Doug, Jay and Mark has been played out the last 20 years. But the last couple of years have been different. The Redskins have had two quarterbacks who Gibbs and other coaches say look roughly equal in practice. Yet Rypien has thrown more than 700 NFL passes; Humphries, until yesterday, had thrown 10.

Now that's a lovely problem. Do you stay with what you've got -- which is pretty darn good, but didn't get you to the playoffs? Or do you give the other guy an opening?

In the NFL, it's strictly forbidden to do anything logical in such situations. For instance, Gibbs could never say: "I'm going to use both of them -- any way I like, any time I like. If I want to start Humphries for a few games, then go back to Rypien, I'll do it. Just like we switch linemen around and nobody even notices it."

In the NFL, a quarterback change is the equivalent of an identity crisis. The whole franchise is required, by tradition, to go into group therapy. So you never change. You just wait for somebody to break. If you're unlucky, the somebody is Joe Theismann, the injury is awful and everybody feels terrible. More often, some large falling object, like Dean Hamel, bends Rypien's knee. Everybody acts very sad. As they should. But nobody's going to sleep through the Cardinals game this Sunday.

In a month or so, the Redskins are going to know whether Humphries is more like Bart Starr or Blaze Starr. Those who love him say he's got field presence and moxie and a tough streak. They say he's mobile, unlike the last three Redskins quarterbacks, and can bring back the scrambling Theismann Dimension.

Those who are skeptical point out that he's a sixth-round pick who's never done very much. Is this guy The Phantom of Redskin Park? After all, being the Southland Conference player of the year for Northeast Louisiana is a pretty obscure career highlight for an NFL starter. (Unless you're Bubby Brister.)

"It was a lot of fun," said Humphries. "Yeah, I've been waiting for my chance. I've got to take advantage of it. I can only get better than I was today. . . . I'd say I was mediocre. I didn't play that well. . . . I need to work on my reads. When you're not getting many reps in practice, it's tough."

As for the potentially touchy triangular relationship with Rypien, Humphries and the team, the quarterbacks handled the situation well.

"I saw Rip hobbling out. It's a shame," said Humphries. "I told him on the sidelines later, 'I hope it feels better tomorrow.' I'll probably ask him for pointers and advice in the game."

Rypien played the happy camper too: "I said to Stan: 'My status is kind of up in the air. Get in there and get the job done.' "

Nonetheless, such situations are, inherently, full of wonderful tension. For instance, at the same moment Gibbs was assuming -- realistically -- that Rypien would be out a month or so, Rypien was talking as if he thought he might heal so miraculously that he could play next week.

"If I can go out and play with a little soreness, I'll do it. If I can get back in there, I'll do all I can," he said. "I had a similar type thing in the Phoenix game {last year} and I came back in the second half. . . . It's day to day."

Should we laugh or cry? He wants to be a good teammate. He doesn't want to backstab Humphries. But he also doesn't want to let anybody else take one snap if he can humanly help it. After all, he's watched Humphries make a career of watching with a clipboard.

No matter how fast Rypien heals, or pretends to heal, you can bet Humphries will start against Phoenix. Ironically, he's had the same amount of time on the bench to prep for his starting debut as Rypien had before replacing Doug Williams.

"At first, when you come in the league, you're going to be in awe," said Humphries. "But this is my third year. Now when I walk in the huddle, it's like I'm with friends. You get in there and fight."

For whatever it may ultimately prove to be worth, Humphries brings a certain natural cockiness to his work that is not natural to the reserved Rypien. For instance, Humphries, asked if any new plays would have to be added for him, said casually, "This offense can run itself." As to his own poor statistics, he seemed completely oblivious. "Hey, it's a win," he said. "Don't touch it."

In coming days, Gibbs and others who care about the Redskins will have nightmares about whether Humphries is ready for the Cardinals -- and perhaps the Giants and Eagles.

But, in the long run of the '90s, the Redskins just had to find out about Humphries. For everybody's peace of mind. The solution, like the NFL itself, was violent.