Since entering the National Football League nine years ago, John Riggins always has pursued the unpredictable. That's why his four-day absence from Redskin training camp is being greeted with low-key acceptance by his teammates.

"We understand John, I think," said guard Ron Saul, his best friend on the team. "He's his own man. He's never going to follow the crowd. We understand that. I don't believe there is any upset on the squad about what is going on.

"Everyone is waiting to see what happens. With John, that's what you have to do."

But Saul and the rest of the Redskins also realize that their lofty hopes for success this season hang in large part on the return of Riggins to the No. 1 fullback position. Without him, a major offensive weapon and, just as important, a major leadership force will be stripped from the club.

"I wish I could say I knew what he was going to do," Saul said. "But I don't. I just know something is really bothering him. If he doesn't say anything, then something is really on his mind."

"He came in here, I thought, ready to play. He was in great shape. Then he left without saying anything. It surprised me. But John is full of surprises."

Riggins still had not contacted the Redskins today, although Coach Jack Pardee indicated he thought he had a good idea where Riggins was.

"I plan to try to get in touch with him," Pardee said, without revealing much more. "We'd like to have him in camp but we have to continue to prepare to play the season and see what he does."

Although it is thought that Riggins walked out of camp Sunday because of personal problems at his home in Kansas, club officials are withholding judgment until they can talk directly with him. Until they do, much of the Redskins' offensive thinking hangs in the balance, waiting for Riggins' decision.

Saul, for one, doesn't believe this latest episode will end in retirement for Riggins. "No, I think he would have called up the TV stations and asked them for a minute of their time," Saul said. "He'd want to take care of retirement right."

Yet, despite his eccentric ways, Riggins, over the past two years, has been predictably consistent about one topic: possible retirement.

He has talked about it, predicted it and then still continued to play. His biggest fear has been injury. He says he does not want to leave the game crippled when he could walk away today with his body in relatively good condition.

In an interview with The Washington Post last December, just a few days before he was to exceed 1,000 yards for the third season in his career, he admitted he would spend the off season giving his most serious thought yet to calling it a career.

"I'll just have to look at where I am and what I have accomplished," he said. "You'd like to leave healthy so you won't be limping around the rest of your life. Maybe I've been lucky, 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 a game show than we realize."

That's typical Riggins: refreshingly candid, a nice touch of humor, but thoughtful.

"He's an intelligent person," Saul said, "and an honest one. He wouldn't leave to hurt the team, that's not John and everyone here knows that. He's given too much of himself to this team."

Riggins has several unique traits among the Redskins. At $300,000 a year, he is the highest-paid player (he has two years left on his contract). He also is the most candid to interview, although his frank quotes sometimes infuriate his coaches and lead to what he says is "the kind of controversy that always seems to come my way."

He once rapped George Allen for paying him such a huge salary and then using him as a blocking back. He didn't like the way the New York Jets, his first, NFL team, were handling him, so he got a Mohawk haircut. "I did it as a joke at the time," he said, "although I thought the Jets were on the funny side themselves. So in my mind it was due process of law."

The final years of his contract are not guaranteed so, plagued by his concern about injury, he walked out for a day just before last year's opener against Houston. When the club refused to budge about the pack, he came back saying that "I went fishing and the fish weren't biting." Again, his teammates laughed and understood.

Much of his large salary since joining the Redskins in 1976 has been deferred, so, financially Riggins probably could survive nicely if he should walk away from football at age 30 (he'll be 31 Monday). But he has never been hung up anyway with materialistic things.

He might own a Mercedes but he is more comfortable in a pickup truck or on that huge motorcycle he brought to training camp last year. He remains a boot-wearing, bike-riding, middle-American native who retreats every offseason to his Kansas farm.

If he has an overblown ego, he keeps it well hidden. There is no chip on his shoulder, no arrogant attitude that rubs people the wrong way.

"We all realize what a vital leadership role he plays on this team," Saul said. "He leads through actions and his work. He works hard and he plays hard and people respond to that and respect him for it."

"Everyone on this club knows that John goes out every game and contributes as much as anyone to trying to win. He doesn't hold back. That's why I think he is one of the most popular guys on the team."

Sometimes it seems that Riggins deliberately does the opposite of what is expected just to see what kind of reaction he can get. Why not say, as he did two years ago, that the Redskins were ripe to be beaten badly by Dallas? When he proved correct, any upset caused by his remarks was doused.

Riggins, the ninth all-time rusher in NFL history (6,822 yards), has never been one to try to set career endurance records. He never thought he would hang around long enough for his impressive physical assets to diminish.

"The only thing I really have wanted to do in this league that I haven't is finish among the top two or three rushers," he said. "But I'm past that stage now. When I ran for that TD against Dallas (66 yards), I told my linemen not to block like that for me. An old man like me can't run that far any more."

Says Saul: "I wish I could say he will be back. I want him back and so does everyone else. But who knows what John will do?"