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THE NEW REDSKINS GET A RUNNING START
Jack McCallum
August 17, 1981
Rookie Coach Joe Gibbs won't lack for an offense if John Riggins, Terry Metcalf and Joe Washington do their things
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August 17, 1981

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

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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."

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