At their stage of life, the Washington Redskins are capable of beating any team at home and losing to any team on the road. They are not, therefore, contenders for any championships. But they have competed commendably this season, particularly in the four weeks since their creeping senility was finally, impolitely, mentioned.

Although noting that the other grandfatherly teams are the exalted 49ers and Giants, Joe Gibbs neither ranted nor raved. He shrugged reasonably, as if to say: "Maybe so. We'll find out." Then he tossed the aging proposition (which he didn't believe, by the way) to his oldest hands, men like Jeff Bostic and Art Monk. Their rallying response against Miami and Chicago was a compliment to themselves and to their coach.

John Robinson, the boss of the Los Angeles Rams, is a likable fellow, a youthful person and a player's coach. He and Gibbs are branches off the same complicated California tree that entwines Sid Gillman, Al Davis, John Madden and Bill Walsh. In the throes of a 5-10 year, Robinson's Rams are whispered to have quit on him. The best thing that can be said about this season in Washington is that, during their own travails, Gibbs's Redskins did the opposite.

Around here, only one football man has been quit on lately, and Gibbs hasn't done much to reverse the trend. Effectively, hasn't the whole community quit on Mark Rypien? If only the quarterback would snap out of it, everything would be all right. This is the common lament of the wishful fan.

Rypien is a golfer of some renown, so the sensation cannot be lost on him that he has come to be regarded as a kind of hazard in the middle of the fairway. The Redskins do a good deal of laying up around him: even when his passes come in bursts, they seem gingerly selected. In critical series, the ball is handed off relentlessly to Earnest Byner. Then, in the final emergency, the team abruptly turns to Rip and mutters: "It's all up to you now." Not surprisingly, he has been slicing a lot of drives out of bounds.

During New Orleans's 13-10 victory over San Francisco last Sunday (Joe Montana took the day off), Saints Coach Jim Mora lifted quarterback Steve Walsh for John Fourcade briefly. "We tried John for a couple of plays and it didn't work," Mora explained. "So we sent Steve back in. The quarterback is no different from any other position." Which shows why New Orleans will not be joining the aristocracy anytime soon.

"It isn't enough for a quarterback to have confidence in himself," Montana said nine years ago, before any of his Super Bowls. "There has to be confidence around him. It's not a position for a lone believer."

Montana was lounging in a hotel room in Anaheim. The 49ers had come there in search of a dry field to practice for the playoff game with the Cowboys that would begin Montana's legend. The checkered tiles on the bathroom floor reminded him of his departed backup and roommate, Steve DeBerg, who was traded away despite setting an NFL completion record the previous year.

"Bill {Walsh} did that to show his belief in me," Montana said. "That way, there was no fallback. We were completely committed. It saved us a couple of years, really." Still, he missed DeBerg.

"If we couldn't find a video game, we used to play checkers on those tiles," Montana said. "Cards, hockey, anything. We were always competing. When you were a kid, did the kid next door ever beat you at something four out of five, and you still said you were better? I mean, you honestly felt you were better? You knew you were? Well, Steve and I were both that way. The only difference was, the team preferred me. No, I won't even say that. Bill preferred me. I wonder what will become of Steve now."

DeBerg traveled for a time on a reputation for throwing interceptions. Until he landed in Kansas City and threatened the record for avoiding them. Just lately, like Jay Schroeder in Los Angeles, he has been reassessed a winner. (It can take a long time, but quarterbacks get reclassified both ways. Cleveland's Bernie Kosar and Denver's John Elway recently have been demoted to fallible.)

A tall, blond Californian with a fragile ego, Schroeder took barely a swipe at college football before bumping around baseball in a minor league bus with his wife trailing in the car. When the curve balls started, he signed on with the Redskins and seemed bound for glory. But then Gibbs lost confidence in him, and Schroeder lost respect for himself, and -- well, anyway, it was pretty ugly.

Emphasizing his virtues, muting his liabilities, the Raiders are making a Super Bowl run with a quarterback Washington thought unworthy. There may be a lesson in that. Rypien will never be Randall Cunningham, but he's no bum.

Since Buffalo might be a free game in any case, what if the fans threw their full weight behind Rypien for just one day? What if he drew the loudest cheers at the start, and the cheering kept up throughout, no matter what happened? What if Gibbs featured him in the riskiest situations? What could be lost? What could be gained?

Without a pleated skirt, it's a little embarrassing to be leading cheers. Never mind. Just a thought.