Ripken could afford to swing and miss, but Rypien must pass test

KEN ROSENTHAL

January 02, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

MINNEAPOLIS -- Cal Ripken and Mark Rypien share more than similar last names. Each had a career year in 1991, only to slump horribly in '92. Ripken failed to redeem himself in the Orioles' stretch drive. Now, with the Redskins in the playoffs, Rypien gets his chance.

As with Ripken, there is a litany of explanations for Rypien's sudden decline, some more legitimate than others. The bottom line, however, is that Rypien must play a big game today against the Minnesota Vikings -- for the Redskins' sake, and his own.

Rypien signed a three-year contract for a reported $9 million after holding out in training camp last August, but that doesn't necessarily cement his future in Washington. This isn't baseball, where free agents receive five-year deals and are set for life.

Linebacker Wilber Marshall, a free agent from Chicago, is the only Redskin with a guaranteed contract. The rest of the Redskins are about as secure as Randy Milligan. Even the ones with long-term deals are year to year.

It might be folly to think the Redskins would part with Rypien, who led them to a 17-2 record and the Super Bowl title last season. But free agency is coming to the NFL, either through collective bargaining or court order. What's to stop the Redskins from going after a Steve Young?

The answer is nothing -- especially under an owner as wealthy and feisty as Jack Kent Cooke. No doubt Cooke was livid when Rypien missed Gary Clark in the end zone with a playoff berth at stake Sunday. He'll grow even angrier if Rypien blows up with the season on the line today.

Rypien's $3 million annual salary is tied with Boomer Esiason's as the fifth-highest in the NFL. He earns more than Young, more than Jim Kelly, more than John Elway. Yet, he finished the regular season as the lowest-ranked passer in the NFC.

Redskins coach Joe Gibbs defended his struggling quarterback all season, much as Orioles manager Johnny Oates defended his struggling shortstop all last summer. The difference is, Ripken established a track record before his astonishing breakthrough in '91. Rypien did not.

What we're looking at here is a one-year wonder, a player capable of reaching great heights only when every variable is in place. Rypien indeed had a magic touch in '91, but his offensive line was healthy, his receivers at their best. Neither was the case this season, and it showed.

Rypien threw 15 fewer touchdown passes (13) and six more interceptions (17). In '91, the Redskins averaged 30 points per game as the fourth-highest scoring team in NFL history. This season, they averaged 19 points per game as the ninth-highest scoring team in the NFC.

The patchwork offensive line was one reason -- Rypien faced constant pressure, and instead of waiting for his favored deep routes to develop, was forced to dump the ball underneath. Not only that, the Redskins averaged only 3.6 yards per run, enabling opponents to play the pass.

For the most part, Rypien resembled a hitter in a batting slump, unable to do anything right. At times, he seemed to come out of it -- most notably against the New York Giants on Dec. 6 and Philadelphia on Dec. 20 -- but rarely did his rhythm last.

Sound familiar? Ripken had the same type of miserable season, albeit under different circumstances (contract worries, nagging injuries) and in a different sport. Indeed, it's difficult to determine who looked least like his former self, the American League MVP or the SuperBowl MVP.

Now, Rypien gets a second chance that only the playoffs can offer. Ripken couldn't snap out of it when the Orioles needed him in September, and Rypien might be too far gone as well. Then again, you never know. The unpredictability of sports is what put him in this mess in the first place.

Gibbs has no other choice but to hope Rypien gets hot. On one hand, Rypien has completed five of his 10 longest pass plays in the past four weeks. On the other hand, the Redskins have scored only one touchdown in their past 10 trips inside the opponents' 20.

The pressure on Rypien is magnified because so many Redskins defensive starters are injured. This is a team that couldn't stop 37-year-old Vince Evans at RFK Stadium last week. Now, it must stop suddenly confident Sean Salisbury at the rollicking Metrodome.

A big game from Rypien, and the Redskins can dismiss his season as an aberration. A bad game, and they must address the quarterback issue once and for all. Rypien doesn't have the security of a guaranteed five-year, $30.5 contract. He had best produce.

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