Eight weeks after wondering if a year's layoff had ended John Riggins' professional football career, Coach Joe Gibbs said yesterday he definitely wants his veteran fullback to play again for the Redskins next season.
"I don't even have to think about that," Gibbs said. "He is the kind of person we want on this team. He's a man's man, a no-nonsense, hard-working guy who never complains and just does his job.
"And he's playing very well right now. Last week against the Giants he ran the hardest and the best he's run all season. He's getting better as the season goes on. The way he's playing, he could be 39 and I'd want him back."
What Riggins thinks is another matter. He has adopted a no-interview policy since returning from last year's absence caused by a contract dispute.
But Gibbs' strong endorsement certainly will affect the team's offseason dealings with Riggins, whose grievance over his contract still is being considered by arbitrator Bert Luskin.
Both the Redskins and the NFL Players Association, which backed Riggins in the grievance, are hoping for a decision by the end of this month, but Luskin has no deadline.
No matter what that decision is, the Redskins still must negotiate with Riggins if he decides he wants to continue playing. He will be 32 before next season begins and long has talked of retiring to his Kansas farm. The Redskins owe him at least $1 million in deferred payments that will begin once he officially retires.
Riggins filed the grievance after Washington placed him on the left camp-retired list, which prevented him from playing last season. Riggins claimed the team denied him the right to pursue his occupation; the Redskins argued that by leaving preseason camp he voluntarily retired.
If Luskin decides for Riggins, he could award the fullback his 1980 salary of $300,000. It also would mean that Riggins now is in his option year of that contract, and should be paid $330,000 instead of $300,000. A player in the option year of his contract automatically gets a 10 percent raise if he is unable to negotiate new terms with his team.
If Luskin decides for the Redskins, Riggins would enter the option year next season. It is club policy to negotiate a new contract with a player in that position.
"What we do depends on how Joe Gibbs feels," General Manager Bobby Beathard said. "If he wants John back, we will sit down and talk over a contract. John and I have not mentioned the contract once since he came back. We talk, but that has never come up.
"I think we are all waiting to see what the arbitrator decides. It's something both sides would like to have behind them. But I don't see where it's affected John's play. He's looked as good as I've seen him lately. He still runs with power and he still gets the job done even if he never looks flashy. You look at the stat sheet and he has a lot of yards every time."
This September, however, his statistics were not that positive. He had lost his job to Wilbur Jackson and was figuring less and less in the Redskins' plans.
"I kept waiting and waiting for him to show me something and he didn't," Gibbs said. "He came into camp in good shape, but after a while his performances leveled off. We purposely didn't work him a lot in games and maybe that was a mistake, because right about the next-to-last preseason game, I began noticing a drop-off.
"I know he didn't get real excited about the preseason. He wasn't that intense. Then against Philadelphia (after Jackson was hurt), he just didn't play very well at all. He knew it and we knew it.
"But you have to give him credit. He started to work after practice and he really cranked it up. He pushed himself. He has pride, you can see that. And his teammates love him. He does his job and never complains. He even came to both Don Breaux (backfield coach) and myself and told us that if somebody else was playing better, don't hesitate to use them."
After Philadelphia, the Redskins played San Francisco. Jackson had not, and still hasn't, recovered from his knee injury and Riggins started. But Gibbs soon turned to Joe Washington, who had a sore ankle, and Riggins wound up running the ball just 13 times.
During the game against Chicago the next week, Gibbs began changing his opinion. Riggins, who plays better the more he plays, ran 23 times for 126 yards. Although Washington remains the featured runner in the Redskins' one-back offense, Riggins has been used more as the season has gone on.
"His players and his coaches are convinced there is no better short-yardage and goal-line runner in the league than John Riggins," Breaux said. "He gets the job done for you every time.
"I think the coaches had to get used to his style. We had never had him before and you look for something flashy, but he's not flashy. I took out old films and studied them to make sure I knew how he goes about running. He has that ability to power for yards and he still can slide to the outside and make some yards that way. He won't have many long runs, but he gets his yards."
Riggins, the eighth-leading rusher in NFL history, has gained 528 yards on 146 carries this season while Washington has 540 on 131.
"They give us versatility," Gibbs said. "Joe has quickness and can get outside and John can hurt you up the middle. It makes it tough on defenses."