TEMPE, ARIZ., SEPT. 29 -- The Washington Redskins are excited about the possibilities, but they've also emphasized again and again this week that Stan Humphries is very much a work-in-progress.

Coaches and team executives have spent a lot of time praising the ability of their new starting quarterback, but have also pointed out he's only 25 and that his NFL career consisted of 10 passes and three games until Mark Rypien hurt his left knee last weekend.

Coach Joe Gibbs says Humphries has a passing arm and instincts as good as any he has ever seen. He said Humphries can scoot around inside the pocket and that he has a special knack for getting the ball up and over defenders and into the hands of receivers. He also has the strength and ego to occasionally zip one right past a defensive back.

But Humphries hasn't played much, and as Gibbs said: "Quarterback is a different kind of position. You can do everything possible in meetings and practice, and Stan is as well prepared as he can be. But it still comes down to taking the team down the field for a touchdown when you're behind in the fourth quarter."

No matter. Humphries, who spent 1988 on injured reserve then backed up Rypien and Doug Williams last season, completes a meteoric rise up the depth chart when he gets his first career start at 8 p.m. EDT Sunday against the Phoenix Cardinals at Sun Devil Stadium (TNT cable, WJLA-TV-7).

Ironically, it was at this venue two years ago that Rypien made his first NFL start as a last-minute substitute when Williams got sick. He passed for 303 yards and three touchdowns, but the Redskins lost, 30-21.

The beauty of it was that the Redskins sent Rypien out with no idea how he'd do. They knew only that he was big and strong, but they had no clue as to whether he would provide any kind of spark or even succeed in the NFL.

Now they're experiencing those same emotions this week as Gibbs has his fourth starting quarterback since Joe Theismann's career ended almost five years ago. Again, they have no idea what Humphries will give them, although they are clearly impressed by his fiery temperament and how he has handled the demands of the most extraordinary week of his life.

What they'd like to see now is a bit of life in an offense that needs some. The Redskins are coming off a sluggish 19-15 victory over Dallas in which their offense accounted for only 12 points and was held without a touchdown for the first time since Week 5 last season.

Rypien and Humphries completed 13 of 30 passes and looked fairly awful. Then after coaches went over the films Monday morning and counted eight dropped passes, their grades improved some.

The Redskins also say that if some of those passes had been caught they would have done better on third-down conversions (three of 13) and stayed on the field long enough to give their running game (77 yards) a chance.

"We all have bad days," receiver Ricky Sanders said, "and we had one last week. People have almost started thinking of us as gods, like we're never going to make mistakes. We are. I'm not making excuses because we just dropped some passes.

"But you're going to have days like that."

Sanders said it wasn't a change in quarterbacks or anything the Cowboys were doing defensively.

"I looked back at the films and still don't know," he said. "I caught some hard ones, but there were some easy ones I just didn't hang on to. I don't know if I was trying to run and make a big play before I had the ball or what. I just know that in a few instances my hands relaxed before I had the ball."

Humphries has taken the blame for some of the drops, saying that if he'd thrown the ball better, the passes would have been caught. Such statements sound game, but may be an effort to accept the mantle of leadership that comes with the position. He has also done all the requested interviews, said all the right things and, finally, admitted he would be extremely nervous Sunday night.

Gibbs said that if Humphries plays well, Rypien may not necessarily be the starter when he returns, thought to be in late November.

"It's an opportunity for me and I have to look at it that way," Humphries said.

"With all the people I have around me, it's not going to come down to just me. Those guys are out there to help me. I've waited a long time for this chance and I want to make the most of it. I know I'm going to see some blitzes and different looks. Their defensive staff is going to want to test me. We'll see how it goes."

Said Gibbs: "He has had great preparation. He has been here and that's probably the right amount of time to see what he can do. He has a real good demeanor about everything and I hope he can give us a spark. I know he won't get rattled. I could tell that Sunday. He came to the sideline and communicated things very well."

The Redskins are matched against a team they thrashed 31-0 three weeks ago at RFK. Since then, the Cardinals upset the Eagles in Philadelphia and lost to the Saints in New Orleans.

They're expecting fewer than 50,000 fans for their home opener because the area hasn't yet warmed to pro football or, more likely, because team owner Bill Bidwill has made a series of public relations goofs -- high ticket prices in 1988, firing popular coach Gene Stallings last season and going 13-22 on the field.

Bidwill's new coach is former Redskins assistant Joe Bugel, who is nothing if not enthusiastic. He said this week that he'd drive fans to the game if necessary and that they'd only have to see his hustling young Cardinals a couple of times to be sold on them.

"The ones who show up will see an entertaining game," Bugel said. "A lot of people are sitting back and still waiting. We're starting some exciting young players and they're going to be our backbone sooner or later."

Bugel has reworked the offense and installed the Redskins' one-back scheme, building it around second-year quarterback Timm Rosenbach, rookie running back Johnny Johnson (210 yards) and a trio of experienced receivers -- Roy Green, J.T. Smith and Ernie Jones -- in addition to rookie Ricky Proehl (14 receptions, 190 yards).

Rosenbach's problem is that Bugel has given him a slow, ineffective offensive line that has already allowed 10 sacks and has made him a scrambler. His 114 rushing yards are second on the team and second among NFC quarterbacks. Overall, he has one touchdown pass and six interceptions and is ranked higher than only John Fourcade of the Saints, who soon will be carrying a clipboard on the sideline.

Bugel has scattered other young players up and down his roster. Johnson is his only rookie starter, but eight others on the depth chart are either rookies or second-year players. Tight end Walter Reeves is in his second year as are his defensive tackle Jim Wahler, middle linebacker Eric Hill and cornerback Jay Taylor.

"We're still in the hunt," Bugel said.

"Our guys are young and learning a little more every week. We looked in the paper this morning and there are still nine teams in the NFC with 1-2 records. Buy your playoff tickets, baby."