Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann said yesterday he could not criticize any player, including Herschel Walker or John Riggins, for deciding to play in the United States Football League.

Riggins is a free agent now negotiating with the Michigan Panthers of the new USFL. Theismann declined to predict what Riggins would do but said, "Whatever John felt is good for him, I'd back him."

Theismann reserved his criticism for NCAA rules, which he called "archaic." He said he would not have left school early, as Walker has, "because Notre Dame is special.

"I'm not knocking Georgia or USC. What Herschel did is good for Herschel. The NCAA has driven him to it. They have rules that if an agent negotiates for you, you're ineligible. The NCAA has no one to blame but itself. They can't put it off on the kid.

"As long as he doesn't sign a contract or report, he's not a professional. If he signed something with a 24-hour clause and said, 'No, I want to get out of it,' he should have been able to."

This is not the first time the Redskins have been faced with the prospect of losing Riggins. He sat out the 1980 season disputing his contract.

"We were 10-6 in 1979 and John sits out the next year," Theismann said. "The offense was built around executing on third and short, quite similar to what we do now . . . It would upset the chemistry of the team more than the actual execution (if Riggins left). There is a fondness, an affection between the guys up front. It's a unique feeling. It could have a long-lasting effect on the younger guys."

Riggins is only one of 16 free agents on the Redskins, among them tackle Joe Jacoby and guard Fred Dean. Center Jeff Bostic is entering the option year of his contract.

Theismann said he believed the quality of performance in the first three or four weeks of the USFL season will be crucial.

"I think it's here to stay," he said. "I think the investors are prepared for whatever comes along in the first three or four years. I think it's going to be a viable alternative for free agents. We have no free agents in the NFL. We're indentured servants who can never get out of a contract . . . It used to be either you play in the NFL or you don't play. We all love football, so we play."

Theismann elected to play in Canada rather than the National Football League after college. Asked what he thought he could make if he was a free agent this year, he replied, "I hope I would be worth about $600,000." He signed a four-year contract last year worth about $300,000 a year.

Theismann expressed little sympathy for college programs which may be deprived of some of their stars earlier than expected. After all, he said, until 1972 the freshman rule meant that college players only performed for three years anyway.

"Now they want to use their great athletes over a longer period of time," he said. "They get mad when they (the athletes) have a chance to better their lives."