About an hour before kickoff, Washington Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs told Stan Humphries the first play of the night would be a pass. "I had a long time to think about it," Humphries said, "but it made me feel good he had the confidence to call it."

Spin ahead five hours. In between, Humphries improvised and turned the first pass of his first NFL start into an eight-yard completion to Art Monk, the first of many good plays he would make during a 38-10 victory over the Phoenix Cardinals.

On the flight home, guard Russ Grimm and others cornered him to say he's headed for the Hall of Fame; that he's a dead-solid cinch; that, wow, they'd like to have his future.

That joking may have been Grimm's way of bringing Humphries down to earth, but after watching their new starting quarterback have a near-flawless debut, a lot of the Redskins were pinching themselves yesterday.

After three weeks of trying to find their offensive legs, the Redskins rolled up 436 yards and 26 first downs against the Cardinals and controlled the ball for 21 of 30 minutes in the second half.

For his part, Humphries completed 20 of 25 for 257 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. The Redskins also rolled up 179 rushing yards, and the last time they were better on the ground was Week 2 of last season.

Humphries was so good that Gibbs yesterday pointed out several times that his career was still only about six quarters old and that there would still be many highs and many lows.

"He had a good, solid performance, but he's played about a game and a half," Gibbs said. "We want him to continue to work and get better. . . . Right now he's our lifeblood and our hope. I feel good about him. But I want people to use some common sense. This is his opportunity and he has made the most of it. We couldn't have asked for more."

Gibbs said what bothered him is how evaluations swing wildly from week to week in a city where the football team is under such a microscope. "We have a tendency to go all the way one way or the other," he said. "I want to go slow with Stan. If he doesn't play as well next time, people will want someone else in there. We want to give him some time. He's going to face different situations every week and he's going to learn as he goes along. It's a constant learning process."

However, Gibbs hardly could have been more pleased with the debut. He said fans may have appreciated a pair of 42-yard touchdown passes to Gary Clark, but said he liked other things even more -- that Humphries improvised on the first play of the game and that he constantly slid around inside the pocket and picked out second and third receivers. That's why Humphries' best play may have come on the final snap of the third quarter.

On first down at the Phoenix 18, he scooted around in the pocket, looked to his first receiver, his second receiver, then with rushers around him, flipped a 13-yard completion to Don Warren.

"What makes or breaks quarterbacks in this league is not hitting the things that are there," Gibbs said. "You'll find a lot of guys that can do that. It's hitting things when the plays aren't there. Stan did a good job of creating things when the play didn't go as he expected."

Gibbs also appreciated another no-turnover game. Mark Rypien and Humphries have now combined for six touchdown passes and no interceptions in four games and the Redskins' lone turnover for the season came when Brian Mitchell fumbled a kickoff return again the Dallas Cowboys last week.

Humphries said the Cardinals "played softly at first" to take away the long pass. "They wanted me to hit eight-nine-ten passes to get down the field," he said. "The key to getting the passing game going was the running game. You get three or four yards a carry and they've got to pull someone up from the safety {position} to stop you. That's when the passes opened up."

Any surprises? "I thought the Cardinals would blitz a lot more to test me," he said. "I think Coach {Joe} Bugel realized that no matter who the quarterback is, that's what we want. After the first touchdown pass to Clark, I felt I started to get in a rhythm. When you do that, it becomes a lot of fun."

Yesterday he accepted calls from his parents in Louisiana and friends around the country, and said it was helping him keep it all in perspective. Two weeks ago, before Rypien was hurt, Humphries had thrown 10 NFL passes and played in two games.

"I'm excited," he said. "This is really the last day I can look back and remember this one. You have to let it go and start thinking about the next one."

Now, having lost to the San Francisco 49ers once and beaten the Cardinals twice and the Cowboys once, the Redskins are 3-1 and about where they expected to be after four weeks.

They now have an off week, their bye in the NFL's new 17-week, 16-game schedule format. They will practice three times this week, take the weekend off and then return next week to prepare for the meat of their schedule.

The New York Giants come to RFK Stadium Oct. 14 to begin a five-week stretch in which the Redskins will play the Giants and Philadelphia Eagles two times each.

The Redskins are 3-0 in the NFC East for only the third time since Gibbs arrived in 1981. They've gone 4-0 only once, in the Super Bowl season of 1987.

But against the Giants, the Redskins have lost four in a row and nine of the last 12.

"That's the team we haven't been able to beat," Gibbs said. "You've got to play great to beat them. No one else has been able to do it. They've got an unbelievably good defense and a super offense that plays off the defense. They may be playing the best of any team in the league right now. They have a defense so good it doesn't have to gamble. It's plain vanilla. They say, 'Go ahead and see if you can do anything.' "

Gibbs said he wasn't sure how the week off would change his preparation, adding: "We've got to be as smart as we can. We can't start {on the Giants} so early that guys get burned out on the game plan. I want to be careful not to give it to them too quickly. We need to stay in shape and knock each other around."

The Redskins haven't been 3-1 since 1987, and their only better starts were in 1986 and 1982. "After four weeks, my hopes would be for us to be 4-0," Gibbs said. "My fear would be 1-3. Everyone knows the answer to our season is in the next five games."