THE NEW REDSKINS GET A RUNNING START

Rookie Coach Joe Gibbs won't lack for an offense if John Riggins, Terry Metcalf and Joe Washington do their things
August 16, 1981

The sweeping new look in Washington isn't confined to Pennsylvania Avenue and Capitol Hill. Out at RFK Stadium last Friday night, the Washington Redskins, a team that neglected to swing into the '80s last year, showed off their face-lift during a 16-10 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Gone was Jack Pardee, the head coach from the George Allen School of Defense, whose idea of a wide-open game was a dazzling 3-2 win. Gone, too, were all those senior citizens left over from the Allen era.

Wearing the head coach's headset on the sidelines was 40-year-old Joe Gibbs, a pepperpot who orchestrated the pass-happy, point-a-minute, bombs-away offenses for Don Coryell in both St. Louis and San Diego. And wearing Redskin uniforms and lining up in the backfield behind Quarterback Joe Theismann at various times were three household names whose minds and hearts and talents were far removed from the nation's capital a year ago: John Riggins, Terry Metcalf and Joe Washington.

Riggins and Metcalf, of course, weren't even in NFL uniforms in 1980. Metcalf became the first genuine NFL star to jump to Canada for big bucks, bolting from St. Louis to Toronto in 1978 and playing for the Argonauts the past three seasons. Riggins held out last summer, demanding that his annual salary be raised from $300,000 to $500,000, until the Redskins eventually put him on the NFL's "left camp—retired" list. That move kept Riggins the property of the Redskins and also removed their obligation to pay his salary. Riggins doesn't believe that the club had the right to put him in mothballs and he is fighting the Redskins off the field even as he carries the ball for them on it. The disposition of his case will be determined by binding arbitration.

Many NFL teams wouldn't have touched Riggins and Metcalf, but the Redskins opened their arms to them. The team needs Riggins and Metcalf because both have just what is needed to play running back in Gibbs' sophisticated offense—experience and pass-catching ability. So does Washington, who was in the NFL in 1980, 35 miles up the road in Baltimore, but not on the field as often as he would have liked. Washington lost his job to rookie Curtis Dickey midway through last season, and the Redskins were able to get him for a second-round draft choice.

Riggins, who played out his option with the Jets in 1975 and came to Washington when the Redskins won his services with a five-year, $1.5 million contract, has always been a formidable, if unpredictable, talent. In his nine-year career he has rushed for 6,822 yards, ninth on the NFL's all-time rushing list. In his last full season with the Redskins, 1979, he ran for 1,153 yards and led Washington to a 10-6 record. But his accomplishments on the field have often been overshadowed by his oddball behavior off it. As a Jet, he once sported a Mohawk haircut. On one occasion he showed up for practice with his toenails painted green. Asked, on the day the Jets picked him in the first round of the 1971 draft, to describe his biggest thrill in sports, Riggins replied, "Seeing my neighbor's pigs being born."

Since rejoining the Redskins, "quiet" has been the word for Riggins, who gained 17 yards in six carries, all in the first half, in the win over the Chiefs. He has said nothing to the press since his brusque statement in June about the reasons for his return: "I'm bored, I'm broke, I'm back." Walking around the locker room after Friday night's game, in underwear and cowboy boots, he warded off reporters with a friendly "How are you? I have no comment." He has said he's not angry at anyone, but doesn't want to discuss the inevitable subject of last season until after his arbitration case is settled.

There is no doubt about the first "b"—Riggins simply got bored tending to his 160-acre farm in Centralia, Kans. while the Redskins slid to a 6-10 season and a third-place finish in the NFC's Eastern Division. Broke he's probably not, though the loss of the $300,000 he's trying to reclaim through arbitration had to hurt. Back? Apparently so, but....

"We had to let bygones be bygones," says General Manager Bobby Beathard, who, unlike Gibbs, was around in 1980 when the Riggins-Redskin feud was front-page news. "We just have to hope he doesn't get some of the same ideas back in his head again. Hopefully, he's sincere about his return."

The cynical view is that the 32-year-old Riggins returned only to impress arbitrator (not one of those again) Bert Luskin, who is expected to rule on the case in October. (As befits our Age of Litigation, the last of five hearings on the case ended on Friday afternoon just hours before Riggins had to put on the pads.) If Riggins wins, he will be paid his $300,000 for 1980 and this season will be considered his option year. If he loses, he's out the $300,000 for 1980 and has this season on his contract plus an option year in 1982. One has to wonder how Riggins will feel about the Redskins if he loses.

Publicly, at least, the Washington management is ignoring the cynical view. So, apparently, are the Washington fans, 32,488 of whom cheered Riggins when he was announced as the starter Friday night and cheered him again when he gained two yards on his first carry in 20 months. Most of them never expected to see Riggins in a Redskin uniform again. Neither did old teammates. He did show up in St. Louis for the Redskins' final game of the 1980 season but kept in touch with few of his teammates. "No, I didn't talk to him, because I was mad at him," says Theismann, faking a pout. "The offense had been built around him and me, and when he wasn't there, it just put that much more pressure on me."

When Gibbs was hired in January, he made Riggins a top priority—either get him back or trade him. On his way from the NFL meetings in Hawaii in March, Gibbs made an unannounced stop in Kansas. Riggins was not home the first day, but Gibbs caught him the following day and they talked for a couple of hours. "I told him, 'Don't come back here unless you're 100% sure you want to be a Redskin,' " says Gibbs. " 'There are four teams interested in you [sources say they were San Diego, Miami, Houston and New Orleans] and we only want you to be happy.' At no time did John show any interest in going anywhere else."

Riggins eventually did appear in Washington for the Redskins' final mini-camp on June 11. "He showed he was in great physical shape," says Gibbs. "He went through the physical drills bang, bang, bang." And through the mental drills clunk, clunk, clunk. "He was a little lost out there sometimes," admits Gibbs. "But that's understandable. He came around very quickly." Indeed, he and Theismann worked smoothly on Friday night, though Riggins wasn't used as a pass receiver.

Very little grumbling has been heard about Riggins' return, even from players like Clarence Harmon, who started at running back last season and stands to lose a lot of playing time. "I have to admit it felt kind of funny watching John line up as the starter," said Harmon Friday night. "I thought he had hung it up for good. But I think everything will work out O.K. Coach Gibbs has shown he likes to use a lot of players."

The key to Riggins' acceptance was probably his outstanding physical condition. Overweight, unprepared renegades are renegades; solidly muscled, 6'2", 230-pound renegades who can still run over and around linebackers are assets.

"The thing I've always admired about John is the shape he's in," Beathard, a 70-mile-a-week runner and an admitted conditioning nut, said after the Kansas City game. Harmon looked at Riggins easing a pair of tan slacks over his cowboy boots. "I don't know, but it seems to me he came back this year looking better than ever," he said admiringly.

Metcalf, too, is in great shape—Gibbs says he's the best-conditioned athlete he's ever seen—but there are questions about his value to the Redskins. Metcalf had gained more than 2,000 yards running, receiving and returning kicks in three of his five years with the Cardinals and he still holds the NFL's single-season all-purpose yardage record of 2,462, set in 1975, but in his three seasons with the lowly Argonauts he seemed to go quickly downhill. Like Johnny Rodgers, who preceded him northward, Metcalf was supposed to be the greatest thing to hit Canada since the hockey puck, and the Argos were paying him accordingly—a reported $250,000 per season on a seven-year contract. "My expectations were that I'd easily have 1,000 yards per season," says Metcalf. "Especially after the first game in 1978 when I gained 163 yards on 18 carries. I said, 'Oh boy!' "

After that Metcalf mostly said, "Oh no." He averaged 638 yards rushing per season while the Argonauts averaged five wins and went through four coaches in his three years. In Metcalf's first year, under Leo Cahill and Bud Riley, Toronto ran through 163 players and lost 10 straight games in one stretch. In the midst of that streak, Metcalf thought about bolting back to the NFL but his roommate, M.L. Harris (now a tight end for the Bengals), talked him out of it. He started thinking about returning to the NFL last season when it became clear that Toronto, which wasn't winning with his $250,000 salary, could lose just as well without it. He was released in April.

By that time the 29-year-old Metcalf had settled in the Washington area. He had always spent a lot of off-season time there because his wife, Celeste, has relatives in suburban Arlington, Va., and his lawyer, Richard Bennett, works in Washington. He began to court the Redskins last November, even before he had been cut. But, as in the case of Riggins, probably nothing would've come of his efforts if the 'Skins hadn't hired Gibbs, who had been offensive backfield coach during Metcalf's five seasons with the Cardinals. They had been extremely close, and Gibbs had kept tabs on Metcalf's ill-fated CFL career.

"I know that, No. 1, when a player goes from the NFL to Canada it's really a letdown for him, even if they are paying him good money," says Gibbs. "And they kept changing coaches on him [Forrest Gregg and Willie Wood, who is still the head coach, followed Cahill and Riley]. It's hard to produce under those circumstances." So Gibbs eagerly viewed films of Metcalf in action last year, films that other NFL coaches had also seen. Like movie critics, they came away with different impressions. "Some guys, most guys, looked at those films and saw a guy who had lost it," said Gibbs. "But I saw things that convinced me otherwise, flashes of the old Terry. And if he could do it for one play there's no reason he couldn't do it more often."

The final test for Metcalf was a timed 40-yard dash at a Washington mini-camp in May. The results have been kept more secret than details of the Royal Wedding night, which probably means that Metcalf didn't run faster than, say, 4.7. (His best time at St. Louis was 4.5.) But the time satisfied Gibbs, who doesn't live by the stopwatch anyway. "A 4.4 guy who's dumb may as well be a 5.0," says Gibbs. "But a 4.7 guy who's smart will still be a 4.7 guy." Was that a hint about Metcalf's time in the 40? "I'm not going to say," said Metcalf.

On Friday night Metcalf showed he can still play. In one four-play sequence in the second quarter he gained 14 yards on a draw, caught a six-yard pass from Theismann for a first down, gained three yards on a swing pass and got six yards on another draw. And in the next series he barely missed connecting with Art Monk on a halfback pass that could've produced a touchdown.

Like Riggins and Metcalf, Washington has proved that he can both catch passes and run in the NFL. In 1978 he rushed for 956 yards for the Colts, and the following season he led the league with 82 receptions. And as with the other two, money played a role in his move to the Redskins. Washington says he asked to be traded as early as the third game of last season because of a contract squabble that had begun in 1978, his first year with the Colts—and not because he was taking a backseat to Dickey. "I kept the contract problem out of the papers, so everybody assumed I wanted to leave Baltimore because of playing time," says Washington. "Heck, I know I'll get playing time wherever I go. I just wanted to get out."

Washington had also wanted out of San Diego, which had made him the fourth pick of the entire draft in 1976, and his dissatisfaction there was lack of playing time. He feels he'll be happy in Washington for two reasons. First, Gibbs is of average stature; two of his other coaches, Tommy Prothro at San Diego and Mike McCormack at Baltimore, were big men. "I know I'll never fit in with coaches over 6'3" or 6'4"," said Washington, who is 5'10", 185 pounds and looks even smaller. "I say that sort of jokingly but it's always worked out that way. I don't think I can really be appreciated by big coaches." And secondly: "How can I go wrong in Washington with a name like Washington?"

The real question is: Will the Redskins go right with Riggins, Metcalf and Washington?

TWO PHOTOSRiggins returned from his "retirement" in trim condition—and awaits a $300,000 decision. TWO PHOTOSMetcalf jumped from St. Louis to Toronto for big bucks but couldn't make a loser a winner. TWO PHOTOSWashington has a feeling that he'll be a big hit in Washington because he can see Gibbs eyeball to eyeball. PHOTOFrom his sideline command post, Gibbs sees only offense, hears only offense and speaks only offense.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)