John Riggins, the Redskins' starting fullback and highest paid player, was absent without permission from Redskin Park yesterday because he wants the remaining years of his contract guaranteed, it was learned last night.
His absence from team meetings and practice drew an immediate suspension and fine from the club, which opens its regular season Sunday against the Houston Oilers at RFK Stadium.
When Riggins signed a five-year, $1.5-million contract with an option year in 1976, he was guaranteed his $300,000 annual salary in the event of injury or being cut in the early years of the contract. However, under terms of the pact, it was learned, such payment is not guaranteed in the final years of the agreement.
General Manager Bobby Beathard said he had spoken to Riggins twice in the last six days, including yesterday morning. Beathard said that Riggins never asked for a renegotiation of the contract, but only wanted "assurance" that he fit into Redskin plans for the three remaining seasons his contract is in effect.
"To me," Beathard said, "That's a guaranteed contract. I told him we can't give him anything like that. It's not fair to the other players."
Riggins will be fined $500 per day, the maximum allowed under the NFL Players Association collective bargaining agreement with the league. Riggins also will be docked a day's pay for each day he is AWOL. In his case that amounts to more than $2,500 a day.
Riggins checked out of the Dulles Marriott Hotel yesterday, where he had been staying since the team returned from training camp.
Last night he reportedly was checked in at another motel in Fairfax County, but could not be contacted for comment.
Riggins was signed by George Allen, in what has become known in the new regime as an era of complacency in which jobs were never up for grabs. The Bobby Beathard-Jack Pardee era is one of competition at every position.
In this preseason, with the regular season opening Sunday at home against Houston, such 1978 players as starting middle linebacker Harold McLinton and Pro Bowl kick returner Tony Green were cut.
Other veterans have been cut in moves that have reduced the payroll, once the biggest in the NFL.
Beathard said he talked to Riggins before Friday night's final exhibition game against Cleveland and again yesterday morning. Each time Beathard said he assured Riggins that he was an integral part of plans for the length of his contract.
In fact, the general manager said, he was talking to Riggins by phone yesterday when he received an urgent call from Pardee's office, requesting a quick meeting so the club could add wide receiver Chris DeFrance, a rookie cut last week by Dallas, to the 45-man roster.
Beathard said that Riggins had gone so far as to pose the possibility of retirement in yesterday's five-minute talk. When Pardee's call came in, Beathard said he told Riggins he had "something more urgent" to take care of and that he would call him back in two minutes.
Beathard did not anticipate Riggins' next move.
When Beathard returned the call, Riggins' line was busy; when Beathard called again, there was no answer; when he called back a third time, he was told that Riggins had checked out.
"He wants some time to think about some things," Beathard said. "He went so far as to talk about retirement. I went as far as to give him assurances he's in our plans for this year, next year and every year he has left on his contract.
"It's really a mystery, something we're concerned about. It's baffling and disappointing. We won't know anymore until we talk to him."
Beathard said that he had received information that Riggins would get in touch with him. But a Redskin spokesman said Beathard had not heard from the fullback again.
Ironically, in Tuesday's closed practice, Riggins "had one of his better days," according to offensive coordinator Joe Walton. "I had no inclination of this," he said. "He practiced very well."
However, unlike past years, the Redskins are splitting the fullback's playing time this season, Walton said.
"We planned on using all the backs more," Walton said. "It could be a warm day. We were starting the season with two fullbacks (the other is Clarence Harmon) and we were planning to use two of them. He knew that keeping him fresh and having a backup was part of the reason for using all the backs more."
Although everybody in the Redskin front office expects Riggins to return in a day or two as fellow running back Benny Malone did after walking out in Carlisle -- the executives and coaches seemed genuinely concerned yesterday. The man most outwardly upset was the coach, normally mild-mannered Pardee.
"Getting ready for the first game of our season and the chance to get off to a fast start against a good club, we need everybody here," Pardee said. "When he (Riggins) is not, it's very disruptive.
"He called kind of late. I was getting ready to go into a meeting. He's supposed to be talking to me and he's supposed to be here anyway. And he isn't. There should be no problem ahead of getting ready for the Houston Oilers today.
"It just happened out of the blue. It shouldn't be happening. We can't let it take away from the rest of the team, what the rest of the team's trying to do, and we're not going to let it. To work seven months getting ready for this game and having something like this pop up a couple of days before the game is just ridiculous . . . Our only chance is to play hard as a team. The team's more important than any individual on it."
The Riggins walkout far overshadowed the other development today. DeFrance, Arizona State's leading receiver last season, with a sixth-round draft choice by the Cowboys. He was cut when rosters were reduced to 50 on Aug. 21, and was contacted by the Redskins Monday. A few hours later Cowboy Vice President Gil Brandt called, asking him to return.
The 6-foot-1, 205-pound DeFrance chose the Redskins. He is a good enough prospect that even his agent, Rick Bennett, was present to work out last-minute details with Beathard. DeFrance said he chose Washington because he thought he would have an opportunity to play more here.
"He was rated as a very good prospect before the draft. He comes from a school that is pass-oriented," said Beathard. "The Cowboys thought enough of him to ask him to come back now. We got what we think is a good prospect, but he lacks experience."
To make room for DeFrance, the Redskins cut defensive end Angelo Wells, a former free agent . . . For the first time, Pardee talked about the reported personnel shift that would have rookie Rich Milot start ahead of Pete Wysocki at right linebacker, Chris Hanburger's old position. Pardee indicated that Milot's size (6-4, 220) would make him a better defender against the run, an Oiler strength. Pardee said the Redskins would be looking for "the best matchups for us." But he refused to say whether Milot would start . . . Mark Moseley, who missed the final two exhibition games to rest a sore kicking leg, will resume placekicking and kickoffs today . . . Guard Fred Dean, who was cut last week, was officially reactivated, replacing Dan Nugent, who may need back surgery.