Sometime after the season is over, possibly as late as June, John Riggins will sit down, "see what I owe the IRS" and then make a decision about retiring after nine years in pro-football.

His thinking will be influenced greatly by one fact: at the age of 30, he can look back at 1979 as his finest season in the NFL.

"If we get into the playoffs and I don't get hurt, yeah, this will be my best year," he said."Guess that isn't too bad for an old-man running back."

Riggins needs only 93 yards to go over 1,000 for the second year in a row and the third time in the career. But this is the most satisfying season by far, since his previous 1,000-yard years were on losing teams.

"When you have a good year and your team loses, it's still no good," he said. "But when they win, and you play well, it's great. I remember when I went over 1,000 yards with the Jets. They stopped the game and gave me a game ball. The team was 4-10 that year, I think. Maybe 10 people clapped in the stands and I don't blame them."

The applause is a lot louder for Riggins now. At an age when his performances might be expected to deterioriate -- the average life span of an NFL running back is less than four years -- his efforts are as consistent and as tough as ever.

He is within 108 yards of exceeding his previous best rushing total (1,014, set last year), his 24 receptions are seven short of his best in the last seven years (31 in 1978) and his eight TDs are one shy of his previous high. He also is currently the 10th-leading rusher in NFL history (6,576 yards) and he has gone over the 100-yard mark 15 times in his career.

Most Redskin officials are convinced that Riggins is playing the finest football of his career. Not only is he running strong and hard, but his blocking has picked up, and, as he showed Sunday against Green Bay, he is a dangerous pass receiver, especially if he can be isolated in the flat against a lone defender.

"You couldn't ask John to do more than he is giving us right now," said running back coach Fred O'Connor. "He's running hard, he's blocking, he's making the tough yardage. He's taking a pounding, teams are going after him, but he just bounces off and comes back."

Before the season began, after Riggins had returned to camp following a one-day walkout over a contract dispute, he was deeply concerned about how he would play this season.

He might retire after it was over, he said, because "no one wants to pay me at my level ($300,000) if I don't perform. Being realistic, I'm not going uphill anymore in my career."

This week, Riggins admitted he is at least still holding his ground at this stage of his career. There has been nothing this season to indicate any of his skills are diminishing, nor does he seem to have lost his desire to play.

"The adrenalin still is flowing for games," he said. "It's always been that way. I remember in high school, guys would beat me during practice but, when it was meet day, I'd somehow always be ahead of them.

"I'll just have to look at where I am and what I have accomplished. You'd like to leave healthy so you won't be limping around the rest of your life.

"Maybe I've been real lucky and so why press it? It's like the TV game show, the one where they ask the contestant, do you want to go for more or stay where you are?

"Maybe playing football is more like a game show than we realize."

Injuries are a concern to Riggins. His walkout centered around his desire to have the last years of his contract guaranteed. He already has lost a good part of one season because of a knee injury and his performances at the end of last year were hindered by a sprained ankle.

"So far, I've been lucky," he said. "I haven't taken a shot on my knee that means the end of a running back's career. I tore ligaments in my knee but it wasn't torn in half. I don't feel I've lost any of my speed; if I have, no one has told me.

"I feel about the same as I normally do at this stage of the season. You're sore, but when you're winning, it makes it a lot easier to come to practice every day and move your body."

Riggins' walkout infuriated Coach Jack Pardee, who felt the timing of the departure, coming as it did a few days before the season-opener, could destroy his team's concentration.

But Riggins possibly is the one player on the Redskins who could survive such an event without any long-term scars. He remains a consummate team player, a willing worker whose bone-crunching runs and high level of effort have earned the respect and admiration of the coaching staff and his teammates.

Riggins doesn't know how to back off from a would-be tackler. He prefers to throw his muscular, 230-pound frame into the collision, figuring most times it will mean an extra yard or two.

That type of effort excites fans, inspires teams and creates leadership. In the stretch run this season, Pardee already feels Riggins is picking up his pace.

"You need big-game performances from big-game people," Pardee said. "Look what John did for us Sunday. He was something against Green Bay. We needed a lift and he gave us one."

Riggins gained 88 yards and caught seven passes for another 34 yards against the Packers. He turned a five-yard pass into a 12-yard go-ahead touchdown by running past one linebacker and running over two defensive backs near the goal line.

"I think we're in great shape now, in a great position," Riggins said. "We're improving every week and coming off that second half against Green Bay should give us a lift.

"What's nice about this team is we have so many good young guys that we're going to improve more and more the next four or five years. There's no reason why our performances should fall off. And there are enough old guys around to be a stabilizing force.

"When we came to training camp, we all shared a common belief that we would do what we were told and we'd stay together and see what happened. That's why we're 9-5 -- we've done those two things.

"And that's why this season is so gratifying so far for me. You find out that, after a while, it's no good playing well individually if the team isn't doing anything. It becomes a job. But the way we're going, we don't have to worry about getting the U-Haul ready Dec. 17 and heading home."

Riggins long had hoped to be able to deliver "the one super year I've always wanted, where I'd be in the top five rushers in the NFL.

"At this point in my life, the chances are that isn't going to happen. So you do the best you can from week to week and see how you hold up.

"But my goal always is the same. I go into every season wanting to lead the league in rushing. Then I hope just to finish somewhere in between first and last."

Lack of a blazing start probably is the only reason Riggins has not been able to challenge the Paytons and Campbells of the NFL for the rushing title. Despite outstanding speed, he needs a few steps to get in gear, which is why he is most effective running sweeps, something George Allen never could understand.

But the Redskins feel three factors still make this season something special for Riggins.

First, he has not had the help of a quick halfback to absorb some of the defense's sting. Benny Malone has become a terrific blocker, responsible for many of Riggins' rushing holes, but he has averaged only 2.7 yards a carry.

Second, Riggins ran in a self-imposed shell for much of the season after two early fumbles, one of which he feels cost the Redskins a win over Houston. Although he lost only one fumble since, he continues to run most times with both hands on the ball, which reduces his freedom to maneuver.

Third, he has not played as much. He has been removed on third down since the opening game of the season, resulting in fewer chances to run the fullback's bread-and-butter draw play and fewer chances to catch passes.

Yet O'Connor is convinced Riggins' effectiveness and longevity have been increased by the additional rest.

"I think John is strong now because he hasn't been worn out by playing too much," O'Connor said. He hasn't taken the battering he normally would. He's fresher and you can see his consistency."

Riggins, however, isn't sure whether his third-down absences have done that much good for his body.

"I really don't know if I'm that much better prepared physically for this part of the season or not," he said. "I really feel about like I always do.

"I've gotten accustomed to coming out now and I like it. But if they ever wanted me to play a full game. I don't know if I could. Maybe a full half, and they'd have to decide which half.

"I look at it like this: if I run three miles a day for three months and then two miles a day for two months, I'm not going to be in as good a shape at the end as I was in the middle."

That sort of frankness -- and intelligent thinking -- from Riggins makes him refreshing. His candid comments and gentle humor have not always endeared him to his coaches, but he is a sharp, honest individual who believes in answering questions directly.

Nor has be been outwardly affected by the affluence brought by his lucrative contract with the Redskins. He remains a pickup-driving, boot-wearing, motorcyle-riding middle America native who retreats every offseason to the open air of his farm in Kansas.

If he has an overblown ego, he keeps it well hidden. The other day, his five-year-old son picked a small trophy out of his father's locker at Redskin Park.

"What's this? What's it for?" asked the boy, eyes widening.

"Oh, just some old trophy," replied his father, trying to get the boy's attention switched to another subject. "They gave it to me for how I'm playing. "Why, I'll never know."

Coming from Riggins, it didn't seem like false modesty.