Now that he is back and presumably willing to get the bejabbers beaten out of him for $300,000 this season, John Riggins ought to be traded, but not for the reasons that seem immediately obvious: that he embarrassed the Redskins or because he interrupted their preparation for the regular-season opener or even because he might be all-malcontent by midseason.
Odd as it appears at first glance, Riggins ought to be traded because he is the Redskins' best player at the moment.
If this seems a heartless notion, ask yourself how many professional sports decisions lately involved sentiment. The Cincinnati Reds were seen as callous, if not cruel, to fire Sparky Anderson and allow Pete Rose to leave town after last season. Now, in first place, they are seen as brilliant.
It was a business decision that caused Riggins to go AWOL Wednesday; it was a business decision, by Riggins and the Redskins, that caused his return yesterday. It would be another business decision to trade him, when his market value remains high but figures to slip steadily.
Although Coach Jack Pardee could begin altering this opinion as early as Sunday, the Redskins will be fortunate to approach mediocrity by season's end. He has made the tough, cold decisions that probably were necessary, but they did not produce much that will speed the Redskins toward being consistent winners.
And Pardee may well be expected to win sooner than even he realizes.
By following George Allen, Pardee is under considerable pressure to rebuild the Redskins and also win in a hurry. What was it George did? Oh, yes, in a single season he turned a 6-8 record to 9-4-1 and produced the first Redskin playoff team in a generation.
A huge number of fans want an Allen-like surge from Pardee. But they fail to realize that Pardee is not playing by the same rules as Allen. To satisfy a town spoiled by Allen, and perhaps to keep his job beyond the length of his contract, Pardee may well have to pull a reverse Allen.
Mortgage the present to assure a future.
What Allen did upon arrival in 1971 was field a team that included high draft choices for that year -- and the next -- and the next -- and the next.
Allen traded most of the '71 draft for the Ramskins, the No. 1 choice in '72 to the Jets for Verlon Biggs and the No. 2 pick to the Colts for Roy Jefferson. He traded the Redskins' top four choices in '73 for Jefferson, Biggs and Ron McDole. He swapped the top two choices in '74 for Richie Petitbon and Rosey Taylor.
That is a healthy head start on the rest of the teams, like a sprinter allowed to begin a race 20 yards down the track while everyone else lines up at the starting line. In retrospect, perhaps Allen should have been scolded for not winning even more games his first two years.
Allen's way still seems like the proper one to build a team, except nobody ever won a National Football League title with it. Every splendid champion has been molded through traditional use of the draft.
Suppose a man wanted to win as quickly as possible in the accepted manner. How would he do it? Simply by stockpiling as many future draft choices as possible. He would get them by trading players with prime market value.
Riggins is well-regarded within the NFL, one of three Redskins capable of bringing a No. 1 draft choice. The other two are Ken Houston and Brad Dusek.
"The difference between a top team and a middle team is four people," said one successful NFL general manager. "Four great players. You have to have one outstanding blocker and one outstanding defensive lineman. I don't think you can play (consistently well) without a great middle linebacker or a great quarterback."
The Redskins seem to have neither as the season starts.
Imagine them next season with, say a Bruce Clark on defense and a Brad Budde on offense. The only way to get both would be to trade somebody special this season, for the No. 1 choice to go with the one the Redskins already have.
Pardee's problem, for most of two years, is that nobody he has deemed expendable has brought anything in return. And in a year or so the players with value now might be worthless.
There are easier ways for a team to become stagnant, but not many.
"I'm not sure Riggins is worth a No. 2 right now," another general manager said. "He's still a 30-year-old running back who gets injured from time to time. With the right team, he could be very effective. With another team, he could be just another back."
With the Redskins, he gained 1,014 yards last season. And though he seemed certain, barring injury, to get the 331 yards necessary to reach 6,000 for his career, he clearly was not enthusiastic about his ninth pro season when he told Sonny Jurgensen that perhaps some players were destined to play with nothing but "losers."
Riggins is one of the very few NFL players for whom free agentry was meaningful, a bonanza in fact. In 1976, he could sign with the team of his choice and that team did not have to compensate the Jets. He chose Washington.
There is a rumbling whose volume increases every time another Redskin is released. It has Pardee being hired to execute the necessary purge of fossils but hums somebody else -- and Don Shula's name is always mentioned -- will be hired when that is complete and the second full year of draft choices, in 1981, is available.
The only fair way to measure Pardee against Allen is to give him the same number of years with the Redskins, seven. But pro sports is anything but fair, patience the least admired virtue.
Pardee has dared to be bad. It may be wise to dare to be awful.