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PRO FOOTBALL : The Odds Are Rigged Against This Runner : Lack of a Strong Supporting Cast Keeps Riggs in the NFL's Shadows

December 14, 1987|STEVE LOWERY | Times Staff Writer

For all the good Gerald Riggs has done at running back for the Atlanta Falcons--two-time Pro Bowl selection, three straight seasons of more than 1,000 yards rushing--it's very likely his memories will be punctuated by question marks--the ifs of the game.

--What if Gerald Riggs had played for the Bears . . .

--What if Gerald Riggs played for the Rams . . .

--What if Gerald Riggs played for the Cowboys . . .

From 1983 through 1986, Riggs was the National Football League's second-most productive running back; his 5,288 yards ranks behind Eric Dickerson's four-year total of 6,968. But, in that time, the Falcons were 22-41-1 and Riggs has been a best-kept secret.

Riggs was drafted in 1982. That year Marcus Allen of the Raiders and Joe Morris of the Giants made their debuts, also. Riggs has more yardage, but who gets on the magazine covers?

Here is a great running back whose biggest obstacle in the past, present and future seems to be the 3-10 team he plays for.

"I think it's pretty obvious that Gerald is limited by the team (Atlanta)," said Steve Crosby, Atlanta running back coach.

"If this team was more successful, there's no doubt he'd be famous," said Aubrey Matthews, Atlanta wide receiver and Riggs' roommate.

But Riggs is not a household name outside of Atlanta, despite being among the very best at what he does. What he also does, gracefully, is deflect the annoyance of playing for a losing franchise.

He seems to deal with his place in the shadows of the football world with the practical sensibility of an accountant--"You do what you have to do."

Sunday, in the Rams' 33-0 victory over Atlanta in Anaheim Stadium, what he had to do was sit out half the game. Not because he was injured, but because his coaches had given up any hope of winning and decided to try out some young players.

The Falcons, who trailed, 26-0, by the half, used rookie running back Kenny Flowers for most of the second half.

"It had nothing to do with Gerald," Crosby said. "We just figured that, under the circumstances, the second half was a good time to see what Kenny could do."

Riggs, however, was the team's leading rusher, with 31 yards in 9 carries.

He rushed for 30 yards in the first half; the team's offense was 47 yards.

How does Riggs handle it? Well, the people around him, people such as Crosby, say he never complains, that Riggs has "accepted his situation," all of which makes it sound as though Gerald Riggs has a serious illness.

"I have a responsibility to this team," Riggs said. "To do whatever they ask me to do. When things are going tough for me I always think about that responsibility."

Coming into Sunday's game, Riggs led the Falcons with 756 yards rushing. The No. 2 man? Quarterback Scott Campbell with 102 yards.

Last season the Falcons were No. 3 in the NFL in rushing with 2,524 yards. Riggs, of course, led the way with 1,327 yards. The team's No. 2 rusher was quarterback Dave Archer's with 298 yards.

"There's nothing I can do about it," Riggs said. "Sure there are times when I want to let loose with my frustrations, but I usually catch myself. I just have to do my best, and try my best for the this team.

"Sure, I think what things might be like for me with a team that was winning a lot of games," he said. "But, I'm in Atlanta, and I'll have to just keep doing what I'm doing in Atlanta."

And maybe, one day, regardless of what Atlanta is or is not doing, a lot of people will appreciate the talents of Gerald Riggs.

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