Mark Rypien says he knew that most of the NFL's best quarterbacks had gone through tough times: Joe Montana was benched in San Francisco, John Elway was jeered in Denver and Phil Simms was grilled in New York.

That was important background for Rypien the last several weeks as he watched what he thought was going to be a bright career pass before his eyes. When he was benched for fumbling last season, he must have thought things could never get worse.

They did, beginning with a bad game at Candlestick Park in Week 2 this season, a knee injury in Week 3 and a near-perfect debut by Stan Humphries in Phoenix. He cheered for Humphries, a friend, but surely wondered about his own future.

Rypien admitted yesterday he'd been stung by some of the things that had been said and written, especially a comment by former Redskin Joe Theismann that Humphries was the answer now and for the foreseeable future.

Rypien even speculated that his future role with the Redskins might be that of a backup. "If holding a clipboard is what I can do to help the team win, that's what I'll do," he said. "I'm not going to sulk or go stand on the 20-yard line with my arms folded. That's not me. I want to play, but I won't forget this is a team game."

What he didn't know was that his team's search for a quarterback that began when Lawrence Taylor crushed Theismann's left leg in 1985 was far from over and that it would circle back to his locker last week.

Which is where it was Sunday afternoon at RFK Stadium when Rypien put on a dazzling performance as the Redskins defeated the New Orleans Saints, 31-17.

He completed 26 of 38 passes for 311 yards and a career-high tying four touchdowns. He has thrown 123 passes this season without an interception, his quarterback rating of 99.9 is the second-highest in the NFL and on Sunday he even re-designed a play that resulted in a seven-yard touchdown pass to Art Monk with seven seconds remaining in the first half.

Rypien yesterday credited many factors with his performance. Having had only three days of practice, he said he went onto the field with an attitude "that I was going to let it fly and take my best shot."

He also knew he had to make quick decisions against the NFC's best pass-rushing team. Not hurry, he said, but be quick. Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs said Jeff Rutledge is the second veteran quarterback to tell him "that Rypien is as smart at digesting a game plan as anyone they've seen."

Phoenix Coach Joe Bugel said the same thing before the season opener, and those smarts showed for Rypien, who never hesitated. He audibled from running plays to passes "about six or seven times" and was on target from the beginning.

"I felt tremendous out there, even on the bootlegs and the whole bit," he said. "I want to thank the trainers who pushed me hard and got me back out there. As soon as I got out of the hospital, they had me at Redskin Park every day doing something."

Rypien's performance helped boost a team that was physically battered and emotionally beaten in Philadelphia the previous week. It also showed them that, maybe, the answers to their quarterback problems are right here.

When last season ended, the Redskins said Rypien and Humphries might take them through the '90s, and maybe they're right after all.

"I've made some plays for this football team," Rypien said. "I know some of the things that have been said, but I can say in defense of myself, I have helped us win some games."

He was at his best Sunday just after the Saints tied it 10-10 near the end of the first half. The Redskins took over at their 17 with 4:12 remaining, and Rypien completed nine of 10 for 83 yards as the Redskins drove for a 17-10 lead.

He hit short passes and he hit long ones. Then on third and three at the Saints 7, he tossed a scoring pass to Monk in the left corner.

In a similar situation on the previous possession, Rypien threw an eight-yarder to Gary Clark in the middle of the field. Cornerback Toi Cook lunged for the ball, and an assistant coach phoned from the press box to say that Monk was getting pressed inside.

Gibbs called the same play just before the half, but Rypien made two changes. He told Clark to keep moving across the field and for Monk to run a corner route. He looked first for Clark, then lobbed to Monk, who'd been pressed inside and left open outside.

Rypien threw the ball so well and looked so fresh that Gibbs said he'll probably change the way he handles quarterbacks in training camp. "His arm was live and sharp all week," Gibbs said, "and the layoff probably helped him in that regard. I probably learned a lesson. We need to do a little less throwing in camp. He showed me that a little rest isn't all bad."