When John Riggins sat out the 1980 season in a contract dispute with the Washington Redskins, there was no salary cap, no franchise tag, no social media, no Internet and no NFL Network. ESPN was just in its second year of existence.
Not surprisingly, the Riggins holdout got little attention compared to Le’Veon Bell’s decision to sit out the 2018 season and probably become a free agent next year.
Bell’s circumstances, though, are different. Riggins was under contract at $300,000 for the 1980 season and wanted to renegotiate it during training camp.
O.J. Simpson, who was the highest-paid player in the league, was making more than twice as much at the end of his career.
When Riggins left camp, the Redskins placed him on the left camp-retired list, making him ineligible to play that season.
So there was no weekly speculation about whether he was going to return.
Bell, by contrast, was not under contract and refused to sign his franchise tender for $14.5 million.
He turned down a reported offer of $70 million for five years because it didn’t have the guaranteed money he wanted. And he apparently wanted a better deal.
Todd Gurley signed a four-year, $60 million deal with the Los Angeles Rams, with more than half of it guaranteed.
Bell’s absence hasn’t hurt the Steelers, who plugged in James Conner and appear to be heading to the playoffs again.
Whether Bell made a mistake by not playing this year has been debated endlessly. It’s a sign of the times the interest there has been in his decision to sit out the year.
You can even place a bet on how much he will make next year. The oddsmakers list the over-under at $64.5 million.
The question is whether the deal will be good enough that Bell will make up the $14.5 million he gave up this year. Most football people think he won’t and made a costly mistake. But he needs only one team to make him win his gamble.
Bell figures he’ll be worth more because he is fresh and healthy. The flip side is that a year off may not have boosted his value, although Sean Gilbert once got a big deal after sitting out a season.
Nobody will ever know if Bell would have suffered a major injury if he had played this year.
Kirk Cousins played two years under the tag in Washington and then got a huge deal with the Minnesota Vikings.
But he’s a quarterback in a quarterback era.
Still, the NFLPA in the next negotiations should try to stop teams from using the tag on a player more than once.
On the other hand, the tag affects so few players that the NFL has higher priorities.
The only positive thing is that by next March, this saga will be over.
Bell will find out what he is worth on the open market and whether he will make up the money he lost by not playing this year.
We all know how the Riggins saga ended. He came back without getting a salary increase. The only thing he got was a no-trade clause in his contract.
The colorful Riggins returned saying, “I’m bored, I’m broke and I’m back.’’
The no-trade clause turned out to be important because Joe Gibbs, in his first year as head coach, was turned off by Riggins when he flew to Kansas to meet him. Riggins told him that if he brought him back, he would make Gibbs famous.
Gibbs first thought was he didn’t want to deal with him, but the no-trade clause contract forced Gibbs to keep him.
Gibbs was planning on running the Air Coryell offense that he ran as the offensive coordinator in San Diego. But after an 0-5 start, he realized he didn’t have the personnel to do that. He switched to a power running game featuring Riggins. The Redskins finished his first season 8-3 and went to the next two Super Bowls, and Riggins was the MVP of the first one.
Riggins did help make Gibbs famous.
The odds are against Bell winding up on a team that wins the Super Bowl. The teams that have the money to give him a big deal — teams like the New York Jets — aren’t contenders.
But then he probably wouldn’t have played in one in Pittsburgh, either. Mike Tomlin won one Super Bowl but has returned only once in the last nine years and lost it. Even with a franchise quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, Tomlin hasn’t been back the last seven years.
Still, Bell figures to make millions.
He will find out if he’s worth as much as he thinks he is.
And the debate will be over. Finally.