The Washington running game was halfback-oriented. Riggins was positioned as the up back in the I formation, blocking for Mike Thomas. "George Allen's idea of offense was, don't lose the game with it and the defense will win for you," Riggins says. "Actually, it was a joke, my being there, a waste of my time and their money. But you get in a situation like that—a new club that's a winner, a big contract—and you don't want to appear to be a rabble-rouser. You do what you're told.
"On the 19-straight play—the Jets called it 19-straight, the Redskins called it 38 M Bob—a halfback lead play with me carrying, I'd always had an optional read off what the tackle does. It's a play we even ran in high school, and I'd always had my greatest success delaying and then breaking it off the tackle's block. But the Redskins' system was for me to head immediately for the guard, and then flatten out behind the line of scrimmage looking for a hole. It wouldn't work. By then it was too late to break it outside; the pursuit would catch up.
"It's a feeling that you're out of your old routine, you're in a different tank of water. The structure of the terrain is different. I talked to Joe Namath about it, after he'd gone to the Rams. Joe had a habit of always patting the ball before he threw it, and occasionally a coach who was working with him for the first time would tell him not to do it. Little things like that, things you've been doing all your life, can make a difference. Joe and I agreed on one thing: When most conscientious people change jobs, they try to do it the employer's way, especially when they're getting decent pay.
"Anyway, toward the end of my first season, I started going back to doing that play my old way, starting slower to let the play develop, breaking it wider, and I had success. The next year some of the assistant coaches wanted me to go back to their approach, I said, 'Look at the films, you'll see it worked better my way.' They said, 'O.K., but don't tell George.' Everyone was so afraid of George."
In the off-season, Riggins had asked Allen to trade him. Allen told him to take it easy, things would work out. The 1977 season ended for Riggins after five games and a severely sprained right knee. Jack Pardee took over as Redskin coach in '78, and Riggins' 1,014 yards earned him recognition as Comeback Player of the Year. In '79 he rushed for 1,153 yards. In the season finale he made the longest run of his career, a 66-yarder in the fourth quarter against Dallas, but a stirring comeback by the Cowboys knocked the Skins out of the playoffs.
"I was tired and disillusioned," Riggins says. "Jack called me a couple of times in the off-season to say things like, 'Do you have a mandatory weight program? You've got to learn to make better decisions in upfield situations. You're not getting off the ball quick enough.' If he had said just once, 'Gee, you had a good year....' What's wrong with a little common courtesy, rather than, 'Here are the films, work on 'em.' All of a sudden Weeb was looking better and better to me. He used to say, 'These are my running backs, don't mess with 'em.' "
Riggins had a year remaining on his contract, and he told the Redskins that the following year he wanted his salary to be increased to $500,000, guaranteed. He describes it as "negotiating my option year a year early." The Skins called it "renegotiation." At any rate, it led to his quitting football for the 1980 season.
"It's hard to grasp," he says, "but I was tired and weary. I'd had it. So why not pull your horns in? Why risk a broken neck? What was easy for everyone to understand was that here was Mr. Greedo asking for more money. Wants more, can't have it, must get out. I think now that what I was really doing was looking for an excuse to get out. If they'd said, 'O.K., you win, here's the money you want,' I think I'd have said, 'Oooh, wait a second....' "
In 1980 Riggins hung around and painted the house in Lawrence and hunted and fished and wondered why his deferred contract payments weren't coming in. Then he took another look at the contract.
"I'd misread it," he said. "I thought the deferred payments started in January 1981. Actually they didn't start until 1983. The beautiful part was that I'd done the contract myself. I thought I was Clarence Darrow or somebody. I figured, 'Oh hell, I don't need a lawyer. I can read a contract.' So that whole year I was making nothing. Let's face it, I had a definite cash-flow problem."