Testy Petitbon faces tough test in Giants Redskins coach counts on Rypien to avoid 1-4 start


WASHINGTON -- When a group of New York writers showed up at Redskin Park last Wednesday to preview the game between the Washington Redskins and the New York Giants, Richie Petitbon wasn't exactly an amiable host.

The Redskins coach started off by saying he wasn't going to answer any questions about his quarterbacks, which happened to be the topic of the day because Mark Rypien had practiced for the first time since injuring his knee a month ago.

"Talk to the quarterback, I'm sure he filled you in on most of his stuff," Petitbon said.

When Petitbon was asked how he thought Rypien looked, he said, "Well, didn't you just talk to him?"

The session went downhill from there, and the New York writers were left with a lasting impression.

They started comparing Petitbon with Ray Handley, who lasted two embattled seasons as coach of the Giants before being fired.

The comparisons are striking.

Both had never been a head coach on any level. Both replaced Super Bowl-winning coaches. Both recorded a Monday night victory over a former Super Bowl champion in their first game. Both got involved in quarterback controversies. Both had problems dealing with the media.

That doesn't mean Petitbon is another Handley. Unlike Handley, Petitbon has been a coordinator for years and he's used to being in charge.

Carl Banks, the former Giants linebacker who joined the Redskins this year as a free agent after being critical of Handley, said there is no comparison.

"It's not even close," Banks said. "You have a very good leader here."

Petitbon does trail Handley in one category, though. He started off 1-3. Handley was 2-2 after four games.

Petitbon has found that a head coach gets the heat when his team loses.

"You certainly come in for a lot more criticism when you lose, I can tell you that much," Petitbon said in a conference call to New York.

It doesn't help that they're not used to losing in Washington.

The day Michael Jordan retired, the Washington Post's Style section, which likes to set trends in the nation's capital, printed a list of other people who "should walk off stage before they become so annoying they have to be dragged feet first."

Petitbon made the list right between Yasser Arafat and Joey Buttafuoco.

Petitbon seems to deserve more than four games before they run him out of town, but the Redskins are an obsession in Washington, and losing isn't tolerated.

When he was asked if he thinks the criticism has been unfair, he said, "I can truthfully say it doesn't bother me. I think it goes with the territory."

Was he surprised?

"Nothing ever surprises me," he said.

His demeanor last Wednesday, though, was a sign it does bother him. By Thursday, he was more polite, but all but one of the New York writers was gone.

All this provides the backdrop for today's Redskins-Giants game.

If Petitbon thought he got a lot of criticism at 1-3, imagine what he'll get at 1-4.

That might be why Petitbon is rushing Rypien back into the starting lineup today, although he has refused to officially say Rypien is going to start. There also are indications wide receiver Desmond Howard might get his first real shot.

Rypien said he would be ready to return even if the team were 3-1, and publicly, his teammates are happy to see him back. Privately, they worry about whether he's risking a more severe injury by coming back too soon.

One major plus for the Redskins is that the 3-1 Giants have problems, too. Rodney Hampton, who is the league's second-leading rusher with 430 yards in 124 carries, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery last week and will miss the game. Fullback Jarrod Bunch also is likely to miss the game because he's battling an infection after an attack of pneumonia.

That leaves the Giants with just three running backs on their roster -- Lewis Tillman, who has carried 11 times this year and will replace Hampton, rookie Kenyon Rasheed, who'll replace Bunch, and third-down specialist David Meggett.

"We don't have many choices," said general manager George Young. "We can't be bouncing guys on and off the roster. I guess this means Lewis will get his chance."

It also means the injury-riddled Washington defensive line, missing Charles Mann, Eric Williams and probably Shane Collins, will have a better chance of controlling the Giants.

Another plus for Washington is that Lawrence Taylor is nursing a tender hamstring and was pulled for the first time in his career last week. He wasn't thrilled about being yanked, but the coaches didn't want to risk aggravating the injury.

All this has given the Redskins an opportunity.

"The bottom line is we know we can play. We know we can win," cornerback Darrell Green said.

It's up to them to prove they can do it.

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