The best information is that the Michigan Panthers offered John Riggins at least $2 million guaranteed for three years' work. If he broke a leg right now and never played, he still would get his $2 million. That's the word from two sources in the Panthers' front office.
Meanwhile, we have the Redskins' public declaration they will never guarantee a contract. In that case, whatever John Riggins' new deal is worth, he would not make one cent if he breaks a leg in July.
By signing with the Redskins, then, Riggins seems to be saying he'd rather play for a guaranteed nothing than a guaranteed $2 million.
This doesn't make sense.
"A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin," Mencken wrote.
Jack Kent Cooke, the Redskins' owner, arranged the flowers neatly yesterday when he said of the Riggins agreement, "This is second only to the winning of the Super Bowl... John is happy and I'm happy. The guy is a Redskin, and I don't give a damn if he once played with the Jets. He's a Redskin and no one knows it better than he."
Now, let's look around for that coffin.
So many forces are at work here that it's hard to know where to look first. One of the literary lights of my youth, Mad magazine, carried a comic strip called "Spy-vs.-Spy." The warring spies specialized in double-agent trickery that appealed to aspiring cynics who would, someday, be called on to explain the machinations behind a football star's contract.
There are suggestions of a football war. The USFL says it has no plan to sign any NFL stars. The Panthers talked to Riggins only when Riggins expressed interest. Yet the USFL hurt the NFL by signing collegians, including Herschel Walker, and the NFL would have been hurt by the defection of Riggins, the Super Bowl's most valuable player.
The Redskins would be hurt more than the league. Without Riggins, their offense has no running-back threat as long as Joe Washington's knees give him trouble. The Riggins of this January was extraordinary and no one expecta such performance again; yet he is a wonderful runner perfectly made to take advantage of the Hogs' straight-ahead strength.
It would profit both the NFL and the Redskins to say Riggins agreed to a non-guaranteed contract because such agreement would mean Riggins thought so highly of the NFL/Redskins that he would rather take his chances with them than take the USFL's $2 million guaranteed.
He would be saying, "It's a bush league and I'm not selling my dignity, even for $2 million guaranteed."
It's also possible that reports of a guaranteed contract were rhetoric designed to give the league credibility (though it can be argued convincingly that guarantees are the only way any star would come to a new league).
If the Panthers did not guarantee the contract, then the Redskins didn't have to, either. On the other hand (there'll be a pop quiz on this later), maybe the Redskins matched the Panthers' guarantee but don't want to say so because then everyone would want such a deal.
The newspaper business is fascinating because you get paid for asking questions polite folks never ask. The problem is deciding which answers to believe. Everyone serves self-interest first, whether they are agents hustling customers by advertising alleged big deals or whether they are owners keeping the hired hands in the dark about how they treat stars.
Sometimes it makes better sense to do the figuring yourself.
I believe the Panthers offered Riggins a guaranteed contract for $2 million. It's worth it to a new outfit to sell tickets.
Despite the Redskins' denials, I believe they struck some guaranteed deal with Riggins (maybe a personal-services contract with Cooke on top of a standard player contract). Whatever Riggins is, he ain't dumb. He's not going to walk away from $2 million guaranteed without some sort of guarantee from the Redskins.
Of his new deal, Riggins said, "This is what I've always wanted."
What Riggins wanted when he sat out the 1980 season (and what he's wanted since he first worried about a career-ending injury a decade ago) is a guaranteed contract.
Now, I think, he has it. I also think the Redskins might pay him close to $2 million.
Last year he was paid $330,000. During the strike, Cooke said players deserved a lot more money. Let's say 30 percent more. That would raise Riggins to $429,000.
Because Riggins did extraordinary work, let's say Cooke, whose business reputation for fairness is impeccable, gave Riggins another 20 percent on top of that.
Now we have Riggins at $514,800.
Let's say it's a three-year deal (the first two guaranteed), which is very good for a running back who will be 36 by the end of the contract.
And let's say Cooke and General Manager Bobby Beathard devised incentive clauses to raise Riggins' potential income to near $600,000 a year.
That means Riggins is guaranteed $1,029,600 with the possibility of earning $1.8 million in the next three years.
"It wasn't easily done," Cooke said yesterday of his two negotiating sessions with Riggins. "John is a damned good bargainer... We went back and forth, and, as usual, we compromised between what he wanted and what I could afford to pay him."
Riggins wanted one other thing.
"He's crazy about the Hogs, as everyone knows, and after we won the Super Bowl someone in Los Angeles sent me a lovely wicker picnic basket -- in the shape of a pig," Cooke said. Here the owner chuckled. "John took quite a liking to it. But I wouldn't give it to him."