The goodbye undoubtedly will be long and loud today at RFK Stadium. It also might be premature.

Because it's for John Riggins, anything is possible.

No one -- including Riggins -- knows for sure if today's Washington Redskins-Cincinnati Bengals game at 1 p.m. at RFK Stadium will be his final home game.

So the Redskins are playing it safe and acting as if it is. And Riggins, ever the showman, is going along, retirement or no retirement.

Riggins, at 36 the oldest running back in the National Football League, will be introduced with the starting offense before the game, but will not start, Coach Joe Gibbs said. There is no guarantee that he even will play.

"He might get to play two plays, no plays, 25 plays," Gibbs said. "He only wants to go in there if he's in there to help win the game."

Both the Redskins (8-6) and the Bengals (7-7) need to win to keep playoff hopes alive as the season nears a close. There are several playoff possibilities for the Redskins, but the most likely will unfold this afternoon.

If the Redskins win and the New York Giants beat Dallas (1 p.m. at Dallas), the Redskins only have to win next Saturday at St. Louis to earn a wild-card spot.

But, since the Redskins' season could end in six days, Riggins and Gibbs spoke last week to discuss a popular topic: Riggins.

At the beginning of their meeting, Riggins said he did not want to make a token appearance in the game for old time's sake, Gibbs said.

"He did not want to go in and play just to play a play," Gibbs said. "He wants to go in there if he is called on to help the team and that's the only reason why I'd put him in there.

"A token appearance is not really him anyway. He doesn't need that, he doesn't want that."

Gibbs also said they did not discuss starting Riggins over George Rogers, who recently has won the job.

"I wouldn't have done that," Gibbs said of starting Riggins.

They then decided that the best way to please the fans was to have Riggins introduced with the 11 starters.

"I think we need to do that for everybody," Gibbs said.

Although it's an unusual decision, it's certainly deserved, some of Riggins' teammates said.

"John's a big crowd-favorite," said center Jeff Bostic, who will start in place of the injured Rick Donnalley.

"If it is his last game, it's fitting that the crowd has some way of saying thanks for the last eight years or so."

Riggins would not comment on his meeting with Gibbs, or his plans for the future.

But Gibbs said Riggins' decision to retire or return will be made in the offseason.

"John is not ready to think about next year yet," Gibbs said. "I just don't think he right now wants to talk about it, think about it or anything.

"He wants more time to think."

Last week, Riggins responded to the speculation with a shrug. "That's all it is: talk," he said.

But because he is 36, and because he had back and hip problems last year and has had various aches and pains this season, because he has been replaced as a starter, and because his reported $825,000 yearly salary is rather steep for a reserve, his retirement is considered likely by some within the Redskins organization.

That includes some of the players.

"I think he'd be pushing it if he played next year," said middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz. "I expect it to be his last home game, but, then again, who knows?"

Added Bostic: "If I were in the same situation, it would be my last home game. The number of years he's played, what he's achieved, the recognition, the records, the Super Bowls . . . Look at what he's done. What more can he do?"

Actually, there is one more thing. Riggins is two touchdowns from tying Jim Brown's record for the most rushing touchdowns in the NFL. Brown has 106, Riggins 104.

A few first and goals at the one or two likely would do the job today, or at St. Louis next week.

"I'd like to see him get Jim Brown's record," running backs coach Don Breaux said yesterday.

Riggins did not play last week, the first time in years he did not play at all when he was healthy.

Rogers gained 150 yards to increase his team-leading rushing total to 792 yards, 115 yards ahead of Riggins.

Riggins isn't likely to add much to his total of 176 rushes, which means this could be his least-active full season since his first year with the Redskins in 1976, when he carried 162 times.

In 1977, he carried 68 times when a knee injury forced him out after the fifth game, and in the strike-shortened 1982 season, he had 177 carries.

The un-Riggo-like lack of activity leaves one to wonder if he might not be encouraged to come back for another season, since there has been much less wear and tear on his body this season than last.

Perhaps this is why defensive tackle Dave Butz, himself 35, smiled when asked if he thought this would be Riggins' last RFK appearance.

"I think it's his last home game," Butz said. "This year."