Before the playoffs began, on a raw, wind-swept day at Redskin Park, Joe Gibbs talked about quarterbacks -- the good ones, and how they get that way.

"It's a unique position, a pressure cooker. You start being exposed to it in the ninth or 10th grade probably, and it all keeps getting more intense right through college into the pros," said Gibbs. "After 13, 14 years, you get a unique guy. The best ones can almost yawn in a crisis.

"I've literally seen Doug Williams yawn in situations where everybody else was going crazy. I guess the Super Bowl probably got him excited, but not much else. Occasionally, you get a fiery one, like {San Diego's Dan} Fouts. But not usually. They're just brought up in it, like a good bird dog. Throw a stick and they chase it. They've lived with pressure so long that it barely exists for them any more.

"For most of them, it just takes time. You've got to be patient with quarterbacks."

The Redskins are being patient with Mark Rypien. But it drives them crazy. And never more so than in Saturday's 28-10 playoff loss to the world champion San Francisco 49ers. Rypien passed for 361 yards. But he also threw three interceptions, which kept the Redskins from having a serious chance for an upset.

The Redskins, you see, don't have a quarterback controversy. They have a quarterback quandary. How good is Rypien now? And how good will he be next season? Is he learning in the fire and becoming one of those "unique guys" who yawn as they make the pressure plays that win championships? Or is he Mr. Nice Try?

Rypien is the best the Redskins have and maybe the best they're going to get for a while, since the Redskins think the draft is paltry at quarterback. Also Rypien gets a smidgen better and a tad more confident each year. But how long? How long before he gets in the Red Zone and sticks the dagger in the other guys' hearts instead of his own team's back?

On Saturday, Joe Montana got the 49ers inside the Washington 20-yard line only three times. But he made inspired plays and got three touchdowns. In the second half the Redskins had first downs inside the San Francisco 20 three times. And got no points at all. Does that simplify it enough?

"We were on the verge. . . . We were close to running with them," said Gibbs, tight-lipped after the Redskins won the pointless battle of statistics by 103 total yards.

Actually, Washington played a near-perfect game -- except for Rypien.

The offensive line did not allow a sack and established a running game with 51 yards on 12 carries by Earnest Byner in the first half. The Posse caught 20 passes for 304 yards. Old Art Monk, with 10 catches for 163 yards, played like the man who will someday break Steve Largent's reception record.

The defense held 49ers runners to a 1.9-yard average. Montana was sacked twice, decked a half-dozen times, knocked out of the game for one play by Jumpy Geathers, and flushed out of the pocket frequently. Martin Mayhew held John Taylor to two catches. Darrell Green, usually head up with Jerry Rice, allowed only 64 yards in receptions.

Washington committed only one penalty (a dubious one) and never fumbled. The special teams were flawless. Chip Lohmiller made his 44-yard field goal.

Because of this, the Redskins had their chance to prevent "threepeat" history in the second half. Three times, they penetrated the Niners 15, trailing, 21-10. That's when the pressure is highest, the stakes are greatest and your quarterback is the most important man on the field.

In Candlestick Park, Rypien's offense gained more yards (441) and made more first downs (25) than anybody against the 49ers in a playoff game. As San Francisco linebacker Matt Millen said, "They scared me."

But when it mattered most, the Redskins got zero points, when, as it proved, three measly field goals might have set the stage for a thrilling end. Once, Rypien threw a gruesome interception when Monk had a step on his man in the end zone. Once, Rypien, who does not avoid a rush well, got his arm bumped and chucked a wounded duck for another easy interception. Finally, Rypien saw Charles Haley bat his pass sideways to 300-pound Michael Carter for a 61-yard comedy touchdown.

"The frustrating thing is you look at the scoreboard and it looks like they had a cakewalk," Rypien said. "But we weren't the only ones fighting our guts out out there today. They had to too."

There are two ways to feel about Rypien. 1) He's Getting There. 2) He'll Never Make It. Gibbs, the loyalist, seems to tilt toward the former. General Manager Charley Casserly, the guy who'd have to figure out how to trade for a Vinny Testaverde, may be leaning the other.

"Rip sucked it up {with a bad ankle} and he got the playoff experience. Now, hopefully, he'll take another step up," said Gibbs, who also indicated that Rypien would come to training camp in firm possession of the starting job.

Casserly was more tart: "He threw some balls he'd like to have back." Asked when Rypien would no longer be regarded as a "young" quarterback, Casserly said, "I think that's already stopped."

How much better can this team -- the second oldest in the NFL -- play than it did this year? Even if the Redskins had won two more games in the regular season, they'd still have faced the Eagles in the wild-card game and they'd still have ended up in The Stick facing Montana.

"We went 10-6 with the third-toughest schedule in the NFL," said Casserly. "What we didn't do is beat the San Francisco 49ers. And we can't keep losing twice a year to the Giants."

"I'm proud of this team," said Gibbs. "We're gradually working our way back {to the top}, I hope."

Without a special quarterback, it's hard. Despite 101 regular season wins in 10 seasons, Gibbs has never had a great quarterback. What would his life be like if he were as lucky as 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Holmgren, who was down in the dumps Friday. Montana walked up and said, "Relax, it's going to be okay." And, of course, it was.

If you are the Redskins, do you make a big trade for a more gifted but not-proven-great quarterback, then try to win a Super Bowl before the team's dozen aging leaders go over the hill?

Do you hope that Rypien holds out next August -- and perhaps negotiate in a way that encourages that possibility -- and thus give Stan Humphries another chance to emerge?

Or, do you cast your lot with Rypien's stoic character, his analytical mind, his strong but not so deft arm and his lumbering feet? Do you keep waiting for the big, tough galoot to turn into one of the unique guys?

Sports is full of greed. Right now, the Redskins are still in the midst of an exceptional decade-long run under Gibbs. They shouldn't underestimate how good they've got it. The 49ers make everybody else look small, so it warps perceptions. But the Redskins should remember that their team, and its accomplishments -- even Rypien's -- are not small. They just don't have Sammy Baugh this time around. The 49ers do.