The Washington Redskins reacted with rolled eyes and astonishment, along with a bit of anger, yesterday to an array of verbal grenades thrown at Coach Joe Gibbs, his coaching staff and Mark Rypien by former quarterback Joe Theismann.

Theismann, in an interview with The National in its premiere Washington edition, portrayed Gibbs as an aloof, isolated man who had too much power and too little patience with some of his players.

He said Gibbs had surrounded himself with "yes men," stripped the Redskins of their "characters" and seemed to verge on coaching burnout.

Gibbs spoke lightly of many of the comments, saying Theismann had visited Redskin Park only six times the last two seasons and that some of the remarks were untrue, others based on misinformation.

The coach refused to enter a full-scale public debate with Theismann, but last night, after having read the entire interview, was in a far less jovial mood. He was attempting to contact Theismann to discuss the comments. (Theismann did not respond to messages left on his telephone answering service by The Washington Post.)

"Some of that stuff is a joke," Gibbs said. "I mean, in some cases just the opposite is true."

Several Redskins sources believed it was more than coincidental that Theismann, now an ESPN commentator on NFL games, made the remarks only a week after doing a game involving the San Diego Chargers. That's the team now operated by former Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard, who resigned in the spring of 1989, in part because he and Gibbs had wide-ranging disagreements over the direction of the team.

One club source also said: "That's Joe {Theismann}," adding that Theismann, like Terry Bradshaw, has made a cottage industry of giving frequent and controversial opinions. Several people who know Theismann predicted last night that he would apologize to Gibbs or say the comments were taken out of context.

"When you talk as much as he does, you're going to eventually say some things that get you into trouble," a team official said.

Gibbs not only was angry at the comments, he feared they would become a subject of debate inside his locker room and distract the Redskins from the business of preparing for the Chicago Bears.

Only a day earlier, Gibbs had been forced to respond to rumors he was headed to Tampa Bay to coach the Buccaneers after this season.

"In one day, I go from being a coach who's going to get millions of dollars to one who has been around too long," he said. "This is a tough business."

He disputed the article point by point and said he would do so again when he contacts Theismann:On his health. Theismann said Gibbs couldn't continue to work at the pace he has for 10 seasons. "You have to wonder about his health," Theismann said. "It's been 10 years and I adhere to the Al Davis theory that 10 years is all a coach can stand. . . . I'm not demeaning Joe as a football coach in any way. Offensively, he's a genius, one of the two or three best ever."

Gibbs joked that he felt burnout "only after losses. I think most coaches feel that way after losses."

The irony of Theismann's remarks is that Gibbs, 50, appears to be in better health than at any time in recent years. He lost about 30 pounds in the offseason, ran about an hour a day during training camp, and, for the first time in his career, has continued his running two or three days a week all season. Normally he gives up exercise during the regular season grind, spending the summer getting back into shape and vowing "this year will be different."

Friends and colleagues say he also seems more relaxed, now that the cyst on his thigh that bothered him almost two years has been removed. That his coaches are yes men. "He should have been here at 2 this morning when two coaches were assaulting me with words and everything else," he said. "I almost got killed. Rennie {Simmons, line coach} turned on me about three times. He should come in there and see how we fight it out. I might have yes men on the defense and special teams and wouldn't even know it. Those guys work on their own for the most part."That he has distanced himself from his players. "I don't know where he's getting that," Gibbs said. "You need to talk to the other players. I'd say that's probably the last thing I am, but you have to talk to them. Me saying it is not going to change his mind."

Several veteran Redskins, including Russ Grimm, Joe Jacoby, Don Warren and Darryl Grant, have said just the opposite this season: that in recent years Gibbs has joked more around players, talked to them more and been generally more accessible.That since Beathard's departure Gibbs runs the entire operation. Gibbs said the operation remains the same in that General Manager Charley Casserly and his scouting staff are responsible for drafting and signing Plan B players and with negotiating contracts, and that Gibbs and the coaching staff make the training-camp cuts.

Gibbs and Casserly argue as Beathard and Gibbs did, and Casserly described them "as classic general manager-coach arguments. The general manager and scouts are going to fight for some of the younger guys, and the coach is going to fight for the older ones, the guys who've taken them to Super Bowls."

Gibbs probably does have more wide-ranging authority than many NFL coaches. That's a byproduct of having won 109 games and two Super Bowls. Miami's Don Shula and Pittsburgh's Chuck Noll gained similar power the longer they coached.That by getting rid of talkative players like Doug Williams and Dexter Manley, the Redskins no longer have character. "That's an insult to the guys we have here," Gibbs said.

Casserly and others say the strength of the Redskins was never in having loud or emotional players, but in having a lot of veterans who know how to win games and how to keep others in line.Theismann commended Gibbs for "listening to Earnest Byner" in a meeting the two men had Saturday night. But even Byner said that meeting probably had nothing to do with his getting 32 carries during Sunday's 42-20 victory over Miami.

"Wasn't he already getting the ball?" Gibbs asked.

Indeed, Byner was given 26 carries against New Orleans, and after getting only 14 against Dallas, Gibbs publicly said the emphasis against the Dolphins would be to establish the running game and stay with it longer.That Gibbs yanks quarterbacks too quickly. Humphries started five games, and after throwing nine interceptions in four weeks, was pulled when 21 points behind in Detroit. Jeff Rutledge came in and rallied the Redskins to a 41-38 overtime victory and got the start in Philadelphia eight days later.

"Joe made a mistake by starting him the next week," Theismann said. "He should have said, 'Hey, Jeff, thanks a lot' and come back with Humphries."

Theismann said of Rypien: "He's limited physically . . . {he} can't move. He's a Jekyll-and-Hyde. It's four touchdowns this week, then he disappears."

Theismann has criticized Rypien at several other times this year, and Rypien has refused to respond.

"I don't care what he says," Rypien said. "He's got his opinion. I don't have anything to apologize for. I got hurt, and when I got well, I got back in there."

Rypien has thrown 12 touchdown passes and two interceptions this season, and the Redskins are 9-2 in his last 11 starts. He's the NFC's third-rated quarterback (92.8) and trails only Phil Simms and Randall Cunningham. He's rated just ahead of Joe Montana.

At times in the interview, Theismann was complimentary. He said before the Dolphins game he thought the Redskins were headed for an 8-8 season. "Now, {the Redskins} look like a team that can win it all," he said.

Gibbs: "I'm wiped out in one part of the article and make a comeback at the end. I'll have to talk to Joe and get his true feelings. Maybe he was misquoted. Maybe we can overcome the coaching, but with a bunch of deadpan guys I imagine it'll be tough. . . . Joe hasn't been around here that much lately. He needs to stop by. It's funny because we had a great visit the last time he was here. I don't know where all that came from."

Asked if he was hurt, Gibbs shrugged and nodded.

"Yeah, it hurts," he said. "There's some shots in there."