Joe Gibbs has heard it for 18 months, that he mortgaged the future for a few victories and that he was making the same mistakes the Raiders, Cowboys and, yes, George Allen had made in other years -- trading first-round draft choices for older players.

Yet with the Washington Redskins having clinched a return to the playoffs with a team built around defense and a born-again running game, those 1989 draft day trades for Earnest Byner and Gerald Riggs don't look so bad.

Not that the original blueprint has held up. Coach Gibbs that day envisioned a backfield in which Riggs would be his workhorse and Byner would be an H-back, which in the Redskins' scheme is a hybrid runner-receiver.

But for the second straight year Riggs is nursing a foot injury and the rushing load has fallen on the 5-foot-10, 215-pound Byner. When this situation occurred a year ago, Gibbs abandoned the run for the passing game.

This year is different.

With the Redskins having started three quarterbacks and current starter Mark Rypien having a hot-and-cold season, Gibbs has stayed on the ground. He has thrown Byner behind one of the NFL's best offensive lines and watched him churn out yards as well as it ever did when the No. 1 back was Larry Brown or John Riggins.

Byner's 39-carry, 149-yard job in Saturday's 25-10 victory at New England was only the latest in a string of strong performances. He didn't become the primary back until Riggs was injured in Week 9 and didn't have the first of his four 100-yard games until Week 10 against New Orleans.

Which is what makes his numbers so spectacular. With two games left, his 1,031 yards are the eighth-highest total for a Redskins back, and he has an outside shot at the team record of 1,347 yards by Riggins in 1983.

He should move into the top three or four, having averaged 116 yards a game since Riggs got hurt five games ago. His 39 carries against the Patriots are second most in Redskins history.

What has been easy to forget at a time the Redskins have used so many quarterbacks and followed Super Bowl XXII by missing the playoffs two years in a row is that when Riggs and Byner arrived, the running game was in trouble.

Riggins and George Rogers, the team's last 1,000-yard runner, had retired, and in '88 Kelvin Bryant's 498 yards led Washington in rushing. It was the smallest total for a Redskins rushing leader since Larry Brown gained 430 in 1974, and it was a departure from the blue-collar, grinding style Gibbs's teams had traditionally portrayed.

"People have a right to their opinions," Gibbs said, "but when we made the trade, I thought we were getting two good football players and two quality people. I still think that. The only problem is that Gerald has been slowed by some injuries, and hopefully we'll get that behind us before the playoffs start."

What a strange year this has been for Byner, who at 29 has proven that he can still be a durable, front-line running back and that he still has the quickness and body to be one of the NFL's best.

What a strange year away from the field as well. The first thing people talk about when they're asked about Byner is how much they like him personally. Cleveland General Manager Ernie Accorsi says that "of all the people I've been around in this game, there's never been a better person than Earnest Byner."

Gibbs said he made probably two dozen phone calls before okaying the Byner trade and was told in each instance he'd be getting a hard worker -- in fact, a near-perfect practice player -- and one of the most likable players in the game.

That hasn't always been clear this season. Always cooperative, talkative and open -- he was once criticized in Cleveland for being too cooperative after a fumble in the 1986 AFC championship game -- he abruptly stopped talking to print reporters two months ago. He said at the time that the silence was nothing personal, but that he had "things to sort out in my mind."

He has gradually begun to open up again, although he limits most interviews to one-time-only, postgame sessions. He said Saturday that many things had happened to him this season, the most important being his baptism into the Baptist church, and that keeping a lower profile "helps me stay focused.

"It's been a low, slow process, me coming back to the Lord," he said. "I've been looking and peeping. I'd get close and say, 'No, not yet.' {Defensive tackle} Tim Johnson quoted a passage from the Bible one day at practice and it was right on the line of what I needed to hear. He had no idea. It was just coincidental, and I can't even remember exactly what it was, although I remember it was about fears.

"But we had a meeting that Saturday night before the Saints game. We prayed over it and I dedicated my life to the Lord right there. I was baptized the night before the Miami game, and I really understood what was supposed to take place. I feel like a new person. It's still a struggle. . . . But I feel good."

The ceremony was not the traditional one. It was performed in front of Johnson, Darrell Green and other friends and done in the Jacuzzi at Green's house by a local preacher.

"I grew up in a religious family, and I strayed away," Byner said. "We all stray at some point."

Riggs's injury certainly has been another factor in his life because for the first nine weeks Byner and Riggs split the carries almost down the middle, and though both said the arrangement was agreeable, it was clear neither one liked it.

Both had been No. 1 backs elsewhere (Riggs in Atlanta), and most running backs say they don't even get warmed up without 20 or 25 carries. So Gibbs had a problem -- two starting backs and one starting job.

Byner carried 13 times in the season-opening victory over the Cardinals, but totaled only eight the next two weeks. It was no better for Riggs, who until getting hurt "was running the ball as well as he had last year," Gibbs said. "And last year, he ran it as well as anyone we'd had here."

Riggs is expected to return for one of the two final regular season games, but he'll be the backup. How they will be used next season will be an interesting question the Redskins have to deal with.

Byner for the first time this weekend admitted that splitting time had been difficult.

"My mindset was that I wouldn't have to worry about looking over my shoulder and wondering whether or not I was coming out of the game," he said. "You want to be in there. You want to get in the flow. It's not necessarily that hard. The fact is, you want to be in there. That's the plain fact, and I don't care what is said or how it's said. You can say it many different ways, but the fact is you want to be in there. I don't care who's the best or who thinks they're the best."

Byner may have seen things slipping away only once, that coming after a 27-17 Thanksgiving Day loss to Dallas. Byner and the offensive linemen all had bad days. Byner gained 39 yards on 14 carries -- his only non-100-yard game since getting the job full time -- and Gibbs indicated that rookie Brian Mitchell would get some carries against the Miami Dolphins the next week.

Byner went to Gibbs the night before the Dolphins game and emphasized he wanted to carry the load. Gibbs said he was never thinking of not giving him the load, and Byner responded with 157 yards on 32 carries.

Now he has established himself as the starter for this season and perhaps several more as well. He doesn't have the slashing running style of Brown or the power of Riggins, but as defensive tackle Eric Williams said: "He's deceptively quick. He has very strong, driving legs and a low center of gravity. He's very hard to tackle."

But Byner, of course, says the line in front of him has given him the protection and the motivation.

"Getting 1,000 yards is nice; I know the offensive line is happy about it," he said. "They've been talking about maybe breaking the team record. They're enthused about it. If anyone has put the pressure on me, it's them.

"The first thing they said was let's get the 1,000 this week, and then we can go for the team record. They're really doing a great job and taking pride in running the ball no matter who we're going against. It's just a great feeling."

A lot of people are starting to feel confident about it. His wife, Tina, invited several other Redskins wives to their home to watch Saturday's game, telling them, "Let's watch Earnest get 1,000 yards."

"My wife put a little extra pressure on me this week with that," he said. "I told her, 'Hey, Baby, don't do me like that. You don't do that stuff.' She had me worried."