Leigh Steinberg sat in a sunny hotel banquet room atop Nob Hill in San Francisco last Friday afternoon, digging into his salad of dandelion greens. In a few minutes Steinberg, a 45-year-old player agent, would receive a Koret Israel Prize, an award given each year to several Bay Area Jewish community leaders. As Steinberg worked on his lunch, an assistant walked up to him and whispered in his ear. Steinberg put his napkin on the table, pushed back his chair and bolted from the room. "It's the Friesz deal," he said, hurrying toward a phone booth. "We're going to get it done."
In a moment Steinberg was on the phone with Washington Redskin general manager Charley Casserly. They were about to make John Friesz, the free-agent former backup quarterback for the San Diego Chargers, a Redskin. "Charley," Steinberg said, "can we just go back over the terms for John?"
As Casserly spoke on the other end, Steinberg wrote on a piece of paper "200/700." Then "no right of 1st ref." And finally "standard."
"O.K.," Steinberg said, "so we have a deal? Good. Hang in there, Charley. Thanks."
All that remained was to work out some contract language over the weekend, and Friesz, a marginal four-year veteran, would sign a one-year deal for a $200,000 bonus and $700,000 in salary. He would be eligible for free agency again next spring.
Steinberg hung up the phone, let out a little yip and immediately called Friesz in San Diego. He got Friesz's answering machine. "The deal's done with Washington," Steinberg said into the receiver. "We got you $200,000 to sign and $700,000. They don't have right of first refusal, so you're scot-free after a year. I'm fired up, big guy. We got you a starting job in the NFL!"
It is spring, always a time when an NFL general manager's fancy turns to quarterbacks. But in this first season of true free agency, the courting has been especially perfervid. Already, the league's 28 teams have made 29 quarterback changes. As the agent for 20 current NFL quarterbacks, Steinberg has become a powerful force in the sport, influencing the fate of teams as he places his clients around the league. The quintessential matchmaker, Steinberg has had a superb off-season, striking lucrative deals for his choicest clients and finding suitors for all but the least desirable. Four of his quarterbacks are certain to be wearing different uniforms this fall than they were last season, and another six could change teams by September.
On the same day that the Friesz negotiations were completed, Steinberg and his staff 1) worked out the last kinks in a trade that sent Warren Moon from the Houston Oilers to the Minnesota Vikings for a fourth-round pick in Sunday's draft and a third-rounder in 1995, 2) moved closer to cementing a deal that would keep Browning Nagle with the New York Jets, 3) arranged the final visits on Jack Trudeau's tour of NFL teams and 4) tried to scare up some interest in Cary Conklin, a free agent who spent two undistinguished seasons in Washington as a backup to Mark Rypien.
In short, it has been an unexpectedly joyous spring for a number of Steinberg's passers. On March 24, Jeff George, who finally wore out his welcome in Indianapolis, was traded to the Atlanta Falcons, for whom he will start under a former Steinberg quarterback client, first-year coach June Jones. Jim Harbaugh, who was booed out of Chicago, finds himself the likely starter, for at least a year, in Indianapolis. And Friesz is the Skins' probable first-stringer now that Rypien and his $3 million salary will not be returning to Washington. The Redskin job is considered a plum because the new coach is former Dallas offensive coordinator Norv Turner, the league's current quarterback guru.
Across the league, only six teams figure to retain the same starting and backup quarterbacks that they ended the season with in '93. And while nearly every starting quarterback slot is all but locked up, many backup assignments remain very much in play. Free agency has allowed a few signal-callers to seek more lucrative employment, but at the same time the new salary cap—$34.6 million per team—has created major job insecurity for high-priced veterans. These quarterbacks' motto: Will slash pay for work.