Past crossroads, Rypien, Miller set to cross paths Both make the most of make-or-break year

January 02, 1992|By Vito Stellino

The quarterback faced a crossroads in his career this season. The skeptics thought he was too injury-prone and inconsistent to be one of the game's best. There was a young quarterback looking over his shoulder, and if he didn't do it this season, his club was likely to go in a different direction.

The quarterback met the challenge, enjoyed an excellent season and was voted to the Pro Bowl.

Sound familiar?

The scenario not only fits Mark Rypien of the Washington Redskins, but also his opponent in Saturday's NFL playoff game -- Chris Miller of the Atlanta Falcons.

Miller, 26, is in his fifth season (Rypien, 29, is in his sixth) and hadn't lived up to the billing he had as a first-round draft pick in 1987.

When the Falcons drafted Brett Favre on the second round and traded for Billy Joe Tolliver this year, they were sending Miller a message: He was running out of time.

He also had to prove he could come back from a broken collarbone that sidelined him in the 13th week last season.

Nobody understood his situation better than Rypien, who missed half of last season with a knee injury and knew the Redskins were grooming Cary Conklin.

"There's no doubt he was in kind of a make-or-break year," Rypien said. "It's been four years since he's been with the organization and they were looking for him to do good things. I know the athlete that he is, the type of person he is. I know it was eating at him to do well. It's good to see him have a good year."

Rypien then added with a smile, "Hopefully, it ended last week."

When the Redskins bombed the Falcons, 56-17, on Nov. 10 on Rypien's six touchdown passes, Miller was out with cracked ribs. He came back to lead the Falcons to a 6-1 mark, including the playoff victory at New Orleans last week that earned the Falcons another shot at Washington.

"For me, it was an important year," Miller said. "I wanted to do well. This was the first year [since he was drafted] where we've really had a good football team so it was important for me to come out and establish myself as the leader of the team."

Miller threw 26 touchdown passes during the regular season, only two fewer than Rypien, who had the advantage of those six he threw against the Falcons.

Miller and Rypien know each other off the football field because they're both good golfers and have played in the same off-season tournaments. Miller plays golf so often that some doubters questioned whether he was serious enough about football.

"People think if you go golf every day [in the off-season] after your workouts [you're not dedicated to football], but you don't work out all day. I do love to play golf," he said.

Miller said one reason he's done so well is that the Falcons have gone almost exclusively to their version of the run-and-shoot, which they call the Red Gun.

"We're going to throw the ball, and that's what I love to do," Miller said.

If the weather is poor Saturday, the lack of a running game could hamper the Falcons. But Miller insists the Falcons can run out of the run-and-shoot.

"Our running game is better out of the four wides [than the traditional running set with tight ends] because we can kind of hit some cracks and creases and run the draws," he said.

This game could turn on the play of the quarterbacks. It's up to Miller to make the run-and-shoot work, while Rypien has to see if he can burn the Atlanta blitz with the bomb again the way he did in the first meeting.

This is the first time Miller has been in the playoffs and he's enjoying it.

"There's a lot of pressure when you're the quarterback, but that's what you thrive on. You've got to love having an opportunity to be in the playoffs," he said.

There's little pressure on Miller, though, compared to the pressure Rypien is facing.

The Atlanta season is already a success because the Falcons have gone from 5-11 to 11-6. In Washington, success is defined by making the Super Bowl.

"You're not judged by just making the playoffs," Rypien said. "It's not like when you're a kid in grade school and they give you a ribbon in a track meet for third place. That's not good enough. You want to be the one when the smoke clears and it's all said and done who's the best at your profession."

NOTES: CB Darrell Green returned to practice after sitting out Tuesday when he dropped a weight on his big toe. . . . MLB Matt Millen also returned after sitting out a day with the flu, although he's not likely to play much against Atlanta's run-and-shoot offense. . . . Practice was closed to the media again yesterday. Coach Joe Gibbs said the tempo was better than it was Tuesday.

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