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Riggs and Allen: Together Again : Falcons, Raiders Showcase NFL’s Top Two Rushers

Times Staff Writer

The leading rusher in the entire National Football League is:

(a) John Riggins.

(b) Gerald Riggs.

(c) Bobby Riggs.

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(d) All of the above.

(e) None of the above.

Aw, there’s no fooling you people. The answer, of course, is (b) Gerald Riggs, the increasingly better-known star of the Atlanta Falcons, who will play the Raiders Sunday at Atlanta. There’ll be a side duel, the No. 1 NFL rusher, Riggs, against the No. 1 AFC rusher, Marcus Allen, who is 12 yards behind.

They have met before, when Allen was at USC on his way to 2,000 yards, the NCAA rushing record and the Heisman Trophy, and Riggs was at Arizona State, acquiring the status of a sleeper.

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Riggs is 6-1, 230 pounds and very fast. Pro scouts wondered out loud about Allen’s speed, and talked up Riggs.

The Rams tried hard to trade up, so they could draft Riggs.

Came draft day and the Minnesota Vikings, drafting seventh, took the first back, Darrin Nelson of Stanford.

The Falcons, drafting 10th, got Riggs.

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The Raiders, 11th, got Allen.

Raider Coach Tom Flores said: “I recall sitting there. Some people in the room didn’t feel Allen would get to us, and some people felt that he might.

“There were some mixed feelings on Marcus but we had coached him in the Gold Bowl (a postseason all-star game). I thought I knew him fairly well. There was no question in our minds who we’d take if he was there. We were just concerned about a couple of teams ahead of us. Marcus was the type of back we were looking for.”

Allen became an NFL star right away.

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Riggs became William Andrews’ caddy.

“It was satisfying to me that people rated me so highly,” Riggs said on a conference hookup from Atlanta. “But I wasn’t put in the same position (Allen) was, being able to step in right away and get going. I had to wait. They didn’t realize at the time what I could do.”

Riggs spent two seasons backing up Andrews, looking promising and wondering when his chance would come. It was last season, when Andrews went down with a severe knee injury that he’s still trying to come back from.

Riggs ripped off a fast 1,486 yards, fourth best in the NFL.

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The only men ahead of him were Eric Dickerson, Walter Payton and James Wilder. He got to watch them, and several others in the Pro Bowl on TV. Riggs hadn’t been selected and felt it.

“I finished fourth in the NFL in rushing,” Riggs said. “I wondered, ‘What do I have to do to get some recognition around here?’

“It was my first year starting. I was leading the league for a while and then I got kind of dinked up. But I’ve been taking it kind of personally. If I don’t make it this year, I’m going to go play defense.”

Except for running, there were some things that Riggs did poorly last season. Almost everything else, in fact.

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His coach, Dan Henning, ticked them off: He fumbled, he wasn’t a terrific pass blocker, he wasn’t a leader, he wasn’t consistent.

“Last year at times he was our most outstanding player,” Henning said. “He was also a liability at times. You’d like to think the coaching staff had something to do with his success this season, but I think you’ve got to put it all in Gerald Riggs’ hands.”

Riggs has carried the ball 298 times this season for 1,438 yards, has caught 24 passes and hasn’t fumbled yet. His other grades have jumped similarly.

And his running?

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He is the only back to gain 100 yards against the Rams. He is the only back to gain 100 against the Dallas Cowboys. He is one of two to gain 100 against the Chicago Bears. He was the first to get 100 against the Washington Redskins.

He did it behind a shambles of an offensive line. Three starters have been lost. Rookie star Bill Fralic started at guard, missed a few games with a pinched nerve, and was then switched to tackle. Only one player, 39-year-old center Jeff Van Note, has played in every game.

Despite that, and 10 losses in 12 games, Riggs has gone beyond 100 yards seven times. Sunday, he will go against the Raiders, whose star has had seven 100-yard games.

More directly, Riggs will face a defense that hasn’t allowed 100 yards to anyone, or 90. Before the Raiders’ last game, they hadn’t allowed more than 70 but Denver’s Gerald Willhite got 85.

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After Sunday, the NFL rushing leader will be:

(a) Gerald Riggs.

(b) Marcus Allen.

No matter how it turns out, Riggs is set in Atlanta. As soft-spoken as he is, he doesn’t mind saying so.

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Where does it leave Riggs if Andrews comes back?

“Where does it leave him ?” he replied. “I’m the lead dog. That’s the way it is right now.”


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