The chant in the Redskins' locker room yesterday was "Rip . . . Rip . . . Rip." That's about as gushy as NFL players get. Curious how four touchdown passes, no interceptions and 311 yards in the air will inspire your teammates' affection.

"A fantastic job, especially for a guy who's been out six weeks," Coach Joe Gibbs said of Mark Rypien, who last played eight weeks earlier.

"A career game," added center Jeff Bostic. "Mark's obviously got a dartboard in his house. He must have been practicing on that while he had his leg propped up. He threw it as well as he can throw it. I don't think he can play any better."

That's how quickly a career can change in the bizarre world of an NFL quarterback -- especially one such as Rypien, who has enormous strengths and a few glaring weaknesses.

For the last two weeks, Rypien has let the Redskins know that his sprained left knee with its torn ligaments felt fine and that he would love to practice with the team. (Come on, coach, lemme play with the varsity, even if it means running the scout team's plays.) The Redskins answered, in effect, don't call us, we'll call you. So Rypien practiced his post patterns with a team trainer on an adjacent field.

"You like to see a player champing at the bit a little," said Gibbs then. "We don't want to rush him back too soon."

A few weeks ago, the Redskins' savior was to be young Stan Humphries. Mobile, creative, emotional, a leader. Then, veteran Jeff Rutledge had the town enthralled. Brainy, poised, accurate.

Now, Humphries is on injured reserve and Rutledge, after one wonderful Cinderella relief victory, has turned back into Jeff Rutledge.

The Redskins didn't expect much out of Rypien yesterday -- just a rusty version of the man who passed for 3,768 yards last season but fumbled so often that he was banished to the bench in midseason to compose himself.

Instead of a gimpy, tentative Rypien, the Redskins got a shock. Rypien looked different. Maybe it doesn't mean anything. Maybe it was only one day. Maybe it's just wishful thinking or the slant of light on a crisp November afternoon. But Joe Gibbs saw it too.

"Mark has a real polish about him now . . . a smoothness. He's really grown up through a lot of these experiences," said Gibbs. "He's a good deep thrower, a TD guy. He's not a runner, but he's a tough guy. And he's extremely smart."

New Orleans has a decent defense. But Rypien shredded the Saints in this 31-17 win, completing 26 of 38 passes. He did it quickly, decisively and, above all, with a commanding confidence. He'd take his drop, make his read, come to a decision instantly and pull the trigger. Zip. Right on the numbers almost every time. Rypien looked like an angry guy grabbing his wallet back from a thief. And, in a sense, maybe he was.

When a man feels he's losing his job, it has a sobering and focusing effect. Maybe that's what this afternoon was really about. "As Mark had to sit and watch others, I think he saw it kind of leaving him, saw it all slipping away," said Gibbs. "He handled everything very well the last few weeks. But an experience like that really makes you want to get back in there."

On one hand, Rypien is the consummate team player. During the week, he pointed out that his wife and Humphries' wife are close friends and that, after Humphries was injured in the Eagles game, Rypien's wife called her immediately to find out if she or Mark could help.

Still, against the Saints, Rypien did not look like a man who wanted to watch anyone else try out for his life work. "Let it all fly. Don't hold anything back," said Rypien, referring to both the day's game plan and himself. "You get out there and lose yourself in the game. It felt tremendous. We were running everything. Even a double-reverse flea-flicker."

The old Rypien was the least emotional of quarterbacks. Yesterday, after one touchdown pass, he tried to give a high-five to every teammate. On one of his few bad passes, he windmilled his arm in fury as if spiking a ball.

"I've heard it said that I'm as exciting as watching paint dry . . . but I can get excited too," he said.

The knocks on Rypien always have been that he's immobile, that he lacks fire and that he is a fumbler.

He has worked interminably on avoiding fumbles. "I've told myself: 'Concentrate on what's around you {in the pocket}. Figure out how you fit into this puzzle. Play within yourself.' Turnovers are the biggest factor in this game," Rypien said at Redskin Park during the week. This season the Redskins have only one turnover in Rypien's starts -- Jimmie Johnson's fumble after a long gain yesterday -- but 11 in the six games without Rypien.

Rypien even tried to be frisky in his knee brace against the Saints. He completed the same naked bootleg passes to the back side that Rutledge bollixed against the Eagles.

As for fire in the eye, Rypien spoke up for himself -- perhaps a first in his Redskins career: "I've made some plays for this football team in the past, I'd like to say that in defense of myself."

On Thanksgiving on national TV, he'll be back in the fire, in Texas Stadium against the semi-respectable Cowboys. Was this just a one-Sunday appearance of a somewhat charismatic, authoritative Rypien? How will Rypien and the Redskins play when Gibbs's anger is no longer ringing in their ears?

NFL quarterbacks are educated in many ways, few of them pleasant for the men involved. The mandatory courses on the way to a degree usually include several semesters of pain, a course in public embarrassment and perhaps a seminar in locker room politics. Sometimes you even have to watch your career pass before your eyes as other men -- friends, even -- try to take the thing you've wanted all your life.

Was this one day, or the beginning of many such days for Rypien?

"This is over with. We've got to play again in four days," said Rypien as he left the locker room. "Let's get going."