The Washington Redskins said today there is a good possibility they will play this season without fullback John Riggins, who emerged from four days of hiding to make contract demands the club feels are unacceptable.
"It appears he may retire," said Bobby Beathard, general manager, after talking by telephone to Riggins, who was at his Lawrence, Kan., home. "During the discussion, it seemed as though John had pretty much made up his mind that he wouldn't be playing football this year."
Beathard refused to divulge the details of Riggins' contract demands. He did say that they caused Riggins to stage a one-day walkout prior to last year's regular-season opener.
If Riggins does not play this season it would be a devastating blow to the Redskins' lofty playoff hopes. Besides being a talented running back, he is one of the club's leaders.
This latest problem evidently concerns next season, the option year of Riggins' $300,000 annual pact. Raggins, it appears, wants to be paid whether he plays or retires after this season. He has long expressed a desire to end his career while he is still healthy.
At this moment, we are going to make our plans to play the season with the personnel here at training camp." Beathard said, "We feel that we'll be unable to discuss any problem that we have right now with John because, at the moment, he is in violation of his current contract by being out of training camp."
Beathard said the team would not discuss "anything with John while he is in Lawrence, Kan., and we're in Carlisle." Beathard said during the conversation that Riggins "mentioned the word 'retirement.' As it stands, his demands aren't negotiable at all on his part. And there are a couple of his demands I don't think we (the Redskins) can live with.
"John is very serious in what he believes in and I wouldn't say this is a bluff. We don't think it is a bluff on his part."
Since leaving camp Sunday without telling team officials, Riggins had not been in contact with the Redskins. It had been thought he was bothered by personal problems at home. Beathard earlier had said he was sure Riggins problems had nothing to do with his contract.
Beathard talked to the press after conferring with Jack Kent Cooke, team owner, and Edward Bennett Williams, team president. This hard-line contract stand also extends to cornerback Jeris White, who has not reported because of a contract dispute.
"I also don't plan any further discussion with Howard Slusher (White's agent) until Jeris comes to camp," Beathard said. "We have finished out negotiations with him."
Attempts to reach Riggins at his home were unsuccessful. His wife said he did not want to talk at this time about his problems with the team. Beathard said he told Riggins through his wife, in a second telephone converstation, what he was going to say to the press and that she approved the statement.
"We just aren't going to get ourselves involved in something that will disrupt the rest of the team," said a club source. "John's valuable but we can't get into the position of giving inevery time someone has a leverage on us."
That leverage, of course, is Riggins' gifted running ablity. Last year, he gained a career high 1,153 yards while the Redskins set a single-season rushing record. Riggins is now ninth among NFL career rushers with 6,822 yards.
If Riggins does not play this season, he will be replaced by Clearence Harmon, the team's versatile utility back. Harmon, whose main value to the Redskins last year was his third-down receiving, currently is backed up by free agent rookie Ricky Claitt and veteran Don Testerman, who returned today after a one-day retirement.
"I hope John changes his." Coach Jack Pardee said. "I hope he'll be back. I hate to think about the possibility of losing a player of that caliber.
"This is something you always face the chance of happening. it's the reason you try to get as many players around as you can, so the balance of the team doesn't rest on one person. I hope we aren't a one-man team."
Pardee would not rule out a trade, for either a starter or a backup, but he said he did not like the chances of picking up anyone who could help the Redskins without having to sacrifice too high a price in return.
"You don't find too many John Rigginses and Clearence Harmons as excess backs on a team," Pardee said. "The kind of backs we are talking about just aren't always available." But the Redskins acknowledge that they will be feeling out other clubs about deals.
Riggins' one-day walkout last season concerned his desire to have that year of his contract guaranteed so he would be paid even if injured. Beathard refused his demand and Riggins returned, saying he had gone fishing "and the fish weren't biting."
But he also warned that his contract problems with the club might not be over. And he said that he seriously would consider retirement during the off season.
That was not the first time Riggins has mentioned the possibility of retirement. He has been concerned for a long time about playing too long and suffering an injury that would cause permanent damage. His talk now about not returning to the Redskins probably is more than idle contract chatter.
He also has had much of his annual salary deferred, leaving him in a comfortable financial position even if he passes up the $300,000 that ranked him among the top half-dozen players in the league last year.
Riggins once said that he would "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?" For him to continue playing, he said, he would have to be convinced it was worth the possible damage to his body another year might bring.
Beathard said he thought Riggins' major concern during 1979 walkout was that "he wanted to be assured he was being waived or retiring, he might bee in the same boat.
"But I thought he was satisfied once that was over, I assured him he was in our plans. And I felt that was the end of that."
Beathard said he was "disappointed" when Riggins made his current contract demands.
The news of Riggins' difficulties with the club stunned his teammates. Riggins is one of the club's most popular players and they realize what his loss means to their hopes for this season.
"We need him back, no question about it," said guard Ron Saul, Riggins' closest friend on the Redskins. "Clearance is a heck of a back, and with the both of them playing, other teams don't know what to expect. But without John, that takes a big part of us away. The guys respect him and they know what he can do for us.
"I still don't believe he's going to retire. I really don't. He's not ready to retire yet. I sure hope he will be back, but with John you can never predict what he will do."
Harmon whistled quietly when he heard the news, then shook his head.
"I was having a great time doing what I did last year," he said. "I'm happy with my role on the team. This sure changes it, if John doesn't come back.
"We will just have to pick up the pieces. Losing him would be a great loss. We need him. I came in here thinking I might start at halfback and be in the same backfield with John. But this will change the hell out of everything."
Fred O'Connor, the backfield coach, said Riggins' absence wouldn't necessitate major offensive changes, except possibly on short-yardage and goalline situations.
"John was our best power runner," O 'Conner said. "But at midfield, all our runs are basically option runs, and all our runners can handle that. I look at our averages last year and mostly all of our guys had good ones. So there is no reason why we can't still pick up yards on the ground."
Ironically, Riggins reported to campFriday in perhaps the best shape of his career. O'Conner said he was able to squat 110 pounds more than last season, "which is like a golfer going from 85 to scratch in two months.
"He came ready, I thought, to play football. We had talked before and I told him he had two more years left in him. He agreed. He said he never enjoyed a season more than he did last year, when we used him less by substituting Clarence on third down."
The Redskins had planned to involve Riggins more in their passing game this year. But until either the team or its star back decides to compromise on what are hard-line negotiating position, those plans are on hold.
"I can't predict what John is going to do," Pardee said. "But this is one reason I don't like to get involved in contract talks."
The Redskins, who hope to make the playoffs this season, had anticipated a low-key, no turmoil camp. Instead, it has been marked by almost daily walkouts and controversy.
"We suire didn't plan it this way at all," Beathard said.