The Washington Redskins ran their final Riggo Drill yesterday afternoon. Coach Joe Gibbs stammered over his words, trying to make the unpleasant seem tolerable, before finally saying, "We have released John Riggins."

The club officially notified the National Football League office yesterday afternoon that it had rescinded the $225,000 minimum qualifying offer for Riggins' 1986 contract, which was made on Jan. 24.

The team's all-time leading rusher and the league's No. 4 all-time ground gainer became a free agent as of 4 p.m., free to negotiate with any team without any compensation due the Redskins. Riggins, who will be 37 when the season starts, was unavailable to comment yesterday on his plans.

It was unclear whether another NFL team has an interest in acquiring Riggins, who earned about $825,000 last season when he was five years older than the next oldest running back in the league. Sources said the only way another team likely would sign Riggins is if he agrees to a substantially smaller contract, with no guarantees.

On Tuesday, Riggins met with Gibbs for 20 minutes at Redskin Park. That night, Riggins told reporters the Redskins had released him, even though he still wanted to play for the team. Both Gibbs and General Manager Bobby Beathard denied that Riggins had been waived.

"I thought the meeting between John and me was private. I think by announcing his release John kind of short-circuited that," Gibbs said at a news conference yesterday.

"I was basically asking him, 'Do you want to play or are you thinking of retirement?' John said he definitely wanted to play. I told him at that point . . . 'now is the time you ought to retire.' "

Gibbs said he thought things over after the meeting ended and called Riggins later Tuesday. Gibbs said, "I told him, 'There are two ways we can do this. We can make an announcement right now and release you and let you pursue other teams that you want to play for, or we can hold open the option of you retiring, give you the freedom to talk to everybody in the league . We would let you go to another team without receiving any compensation.' "

Gibbs said the possibility of Riggins returning to the Redskins for his 15th year in the NFL, and 10th with the team, was not discussed in either conversation.

He also said he was surprised when Riggins told reporters Tuesday that he had been released and when he issued a challenge in the 60-yard dash at the team's May minicamp to "anybody who thinks he wants to be the starting running back."

"Should my challenge go unanswered," Riggins said, "I want everyone to know I wish the Redskins well."

"My biggest concern was to do this the right way," Gibbs said. "We tried to be a class organization."

Gibbs was known to be Riggins' strongest supporter in the organization. Even as other club officials and assistant coaches told Gibbs over the past months it had become obvious last season that Riggins had lost a step and had become deficient in short-yardage and goal-line rushes, his forte, Gibbs still supported Riggins.

Since the end of last season, Beathard said, the Redskins had talked about a possible trade for Riggins with every team in the league except Dallas and St. Louis, two of Washington's NFC Eastern Division rivals.

"There wasn't even mild interest," Beathard said.

Defensive tackle Darryl Grant described yesterday what he thought would have been the perfect parting between Riggins and the Redskins.

Said Grant, "It could have been spectacular, a Riggo Day with a lot of festivities. Everybody would have been dressed in camouflage, paying homage to John Riggins.

"It could have been held near the monument grounds. Is that big enough? There could have been a nice parade through the city, Riggins in the back of a four-wheel truck, waving and blowing kisses at everybody. Bands would have been playing 'Hail to the Chief' or Frank Sinatra's 'I Did It My Way.'

"John did do it his way, that's for sure," Grant said. "But you know, I'll tell you like this. No matter what height you reach in this game, it's hard to relinquish it."

Riggins' locker was emptied early yesterday, a clearer signal than any press conference or release. His flimsy metallic nameplate, which read "Riggins 44," was removed, leaving a blank space and a storied past.

"You know, at times in the past you'd think Riggins was dead and couldn't do it anymore," said linebacker Mel Kaufman. "Then he'd rise up and do incredible things. It's going to be different without him around here, almost like a changing of the guard."

Grant added, "He's a local legend, a team legend and he's got to be an NFL legend. Guys will come and go, but you'll never forget Riggins. I know I won't forget him if I live to 100."

Chronic back and hip problems and the acquisition of running back George Rogers reduced Riggins' importance to the team last season, when he rushed for 667 yards. He didn't play in the final two games even though he was healthy.

"I was an insurance policy last year," Riggins said Tuesday night, "and obviously insurance policies become expendable."

"None of the superstars ever go out easy. They want to keep going," said Bobby Mitchell, the Redskins' assistant general manager who is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a Cleveland running back and Redskins pass receiver.

"Go back as far as you want. Name a superstar. Joe Namath? He went out to Los Angeles with the Rams at the end, trying to keep going, and it didn't work," Mitchell said. "O.J. Simpson? He went out to the 49ers at the end of his career. Johnny Unitas went out to San Diego when his career was about over. Look at Franco Harris, going out to Seattle. There's a lot of pride involved when you're the Top Guy and it's hard to give it all up."

It was speculated that perhaps Riggins might sign with the Los Angeles Raiders. After all, Al Davis, the Raiders' managing general partner, has accepted vagrant veterans of the past: Jim Plunkett, Lyle Alzado, Brad Van Pelt, etc.

Although Davis could not be reached for comment, a Raiders spokesman said the club likely would have no interest in Riggins. Another possibility, of course, is the U.S. Football League.

Gibbs said he talked to Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke and that Cooke agreed with his final decision not to have Riggins return to the team.

"I really hope John can find some team to help, that he plays and that he is happy," Gibbs said.

Gibbs added that allowing Riggins the option to retire rather than releasing him was "the way that I preferred, but John made his decision."