Chris Hanburger's smiling presence on TV must haunt John Riggins. Jake Scott's return to the wilds of Colorado must be on Riggins' mind. Billy Kilmer's idyll in Florida, Frank Grant's odyssey around the NFL and the reluctant retirements of Len Hauss, Harold McLinton and Ron McDole must have made Riggins sensitive to his mortality. Tony Green, the team's only Pro Bowler, is gone. Riggins doesn't want to be next, and if he must be next, he wants to take his money with him.
According to Bobby Beathard, the Redskin general manager, Riggins skipped out on the team yesterday after asking for a written guarantee that he would be part of the Redskins for the three years remaining on his current $300,000-a-year contract.
Beathard was reluctant to characterize his conversation with Riggins as a demand for renegotiation of the fullback's contract. "I don't know what to call it," Beathard said last night. "It's just disappointing. Gosh durn, whatever his contract is now, it is one of the best contracts in football. I don't think it's fair to the team, what he's doing."
Beathard spoke by telephone to Riggins yesterday morning.
"I told him, 'John, whatever meetings we have with the coaches and personnel people, we have never discussed the fullback situation. We're happy with you and Clarence Harmon,'" Beathard said.
"'Even looking ahead to next year's draft, fullback is not a priority item for us,'" Beathard said he told Riggins, adding praise for the fullback's leadership and courage. "'We want you with this team.'"
"Well," Beathard related, "John said he wanted that in writing and I said I couldn't put that in writing. John then said, 'I want it guaranteed and if something like that can't be done, I'll retire.'"
"I guess," Beathard said last night.
Though some reports said Riggins didn't want to be part of a rebuilding effort here, after suffering in defeat with the New York Jets, Beathard said last night that subject never came up in his talks with the eight-year veteran.
"I hope it's just a deal like Benny Malone's," Beathard said, alluding to the halfback's two-day walkout from training camp that ended amicably. "I feel John will be back for our Houston game Sunday, but I won't know what he really wants till he calls me back. Maybe a bigger deal is being made out of this than it really is."
Who would voluntarily walk away from $935,000? If Riggins plays this year and next, then plays an option year, he would be paid that $935,000.
So most likely, Riggins is simply feeling foolish at the moment. Feeling foolish that four years ago, as a coveted free agent, he did not demand his $1.5 million as guaranteed money. Feeling foolish that the old relic, Billy Kilmer, extracted a guaranteed $500,000 contract from the Redskins and started only two games to earn his pay. Most likely, Riggins is depressed by the realization that no one is indispensable on this Redskin team.
Riggins can see $630,000 taken away from him.
That's how much the last year of his contract and an option year are worth -- if he earns a spot on the roster. What Riggins wants, judging from Beathard's report, is a written guarantee of that job. In short, he wants the $630,000 guaranteed.
"That wouldn't be fair to the other players," Beathard said. "And we would have the same response to any player who wanted that kind of assurance."
Riggins' active imagination of 630,000 dollar bills floating away is easily understandable, for these are bizarre times in a Redskin organization committed to a rebuilding effort. Gone are the heroes of old. Gone, even, is the hero of last year.
The day before Riggins went AWOL, the Redskins sent Tony Green packing. Other judgments by Beatherd and Coach Jack Pardee have been supported by events -- Scott cut by the Vikings, Grant unable to stick with Tampa Bay or Baltimore, the old heroes unsigned by any NFL team -- and so one supposes the Redskins know what they are doing in the Green case.
But I don't know. Why release a kick returner-wide receiver-running back when you need in the worst way a kick returner-wide receiver-running back? And why release that valuable fellow before the real season even starts?
Without a kick returner of experience to take his place, the Redskins cut Green. They have three middle-level wide receivers working a job demanding speed, good hands and elusiveness -- a job Green seemed well suited for. And if Riggins stays missing, no one can name a Redskin running back clearly better than Tony Green.
So why dump him?
Pardee and Beathard say Green has lost it. No zip, no zing, couldn't shift into that high gear any more. Wasn't loafing, they say, he just didn't work like a game-breaker any more.
The mystery of the timing of Green's release, giving him no chance to shine in games that count, is no mystery at all if we accept the idea that Pardee and Beathard believe the best way to build a good football team is to keep only good players who are producing every day, every practice, every game.
First you find your players, then you find the team. Sadly for Tony Green, the rebuilding Redskins must judge players by their work of the moment, not by what they did a year ago or might do next year. And the Pardee-Beathard judgment is that Buddy Hardeman, a veteran of only 10 punt returns in his life, is better at that job than Green.
No wonder John Riggins wants a guarantee.