With typical flair, running back John Riggins announced yesterday that he has been released from the Washington Redskins.

But team officials denied that they had waived their all-time leading rusher.

"It's very unusual for a player to announce that a player is being waived," Riggins said last night. "Have you ever heard of a player making the announcement? I'm doing it because I feel it is important for the public to know how I feel. That's important. So many teams sweep players under the rug."

Riggins, 36, said he met with Coach Joe Gibbs for 20 minutes yesterday at Redskin Park to discuss his future with the team and said Gibbs told him "he'd reviewed the films and I'd lost a step."

Riggins said he responded, "I think that's absurd. . . . I want to play and play for the Redskins this year. But I understand what you've got to do, and if you've got to fire me, you've got to fire me."

Wearing a tuxedo and a somber expression at a March of Dimes banquet at the Sheraton-Washington last night, Riggins said, "Was I surprised? No. I'd have to have my head in the sand to be shocked."

Both Gibbs and General Manager Bobby Beathard denied that Riggins has been released. Reached at his Northern Virginia home, Gibbs said, "John has not been released. He and I did talk today. I thought the conversation was just between me and him."

Beathard said, "We absolutely have not released Riggins." Asked if the team planned to release the veteran running back, Beathard paused at length, then said, "I'm not going to comment. We have a decision to make. As of this date, we have not released John Riggins. Joe [Gibbs] and I will meet again tomorrow."

The pinnacle of Riggins' 10-year career with the Redskins came in Super Bowl XVII when he rushed for a then-record 166 yards, including the game-breaking 43-yard touchdown run, to lead the Redskins to a 27-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins.

However, after Riggins rushed for more than 1,200 yards in both 1983 and 1984, chronic back and hip problems and the acquisition of running back George Rogers reduced his importance to the team. Riggins rushed for only 667 yards last season and didn't play in the team's final two games even though he was healthy.

"Last year, the message was sent," Riggins said last night. "I made the best out of what happened. I was an insurance policy last year, and obviously insurance policies become expendable."

Riggins earned an $825,000 salary last season, working on a one-year contract, when he was the oldest running back in the league. He has rushed for 11,352 yards in a 14-season National Football League career, fourth most in history. He has rushed for 104 touchdowns, second only to Jim Brown's 106.

Redskins linebacker Neal Olkewicz said of Riggins: "I think a lot of his presence and charisma will be lost. He's a character and there doesn't seem to be many around like that anymore."

Riggins was drafted by the New York Jets in the first round of 1971. His legend has been made by such antics as getting a mohawk haircut and selling used tires off the back of his van to his Jets teammates in the early 1970s, by holding out the entire 1980 season in a contract dispute with the Redskins only to return the next season with the statement, "I'm bored, I'm broke, I'm back."

More recently, Riggins has been a source of concern for the Redskins, beginning with last year's Salute to Congress banquet at which Riggins told Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to "Loosen up, Sandy, baby!" and fell asleep on the floor during a speech given by Vice President George Bush. Riggins was arrested on a charge of being drunk in public on July 25 last year but later was cleared of the charge.

The antics didn't stop yesterday, either. Riggins released a statement through his attorney, Doug Woloshin, that read in part: "I would like to issue a challenge to anybody who thinks he wants to be the starting running back to a 60-yard dash at the mini-camp [in May]. I think the outcome of the competition will prove that I have not lost a step. Should my challenge go unanswered, I want everyone to know I wish the Redskins well."

About the only thing that Riggins seemed uncertain about was his future. He said, "I'll wait and see what comes along. I told Joe Gibbs , 'It'd be difficult to play for any other team.' Ten years here. Super Bowl. This is home for me.

"Until my banker gives me another call, I'll stay unemployed."