Leigh Steinberg lives on the telephone. On each of the
five floors of his office-part-time home in Berkeley, Calif., there are phone
cords that reach out to decks overlooking the Bay; he's on the phones from
shortly after he wakes up at 6:30 until shortly before he sleeps after the late
sports on TV. When Steinberg was negotiating rookie quarterback Troy Aikman's
contract with the Dallas Cowboys this spring, he used home phones, car phones,
portable phones, airport phones, airplane phones, rental-car phones and a
Donald Duck pay phone at Disneyland.
Driving in Oakland one April day, Steinberg was
negotiating some final points of the Aikman contract by car phone. The Cowboys
had put more than $10 million on the table by then, but Steinberg was trying
hard to push the figure over $11 million. "These car phones are supposed to
be private," Steinberg said last week. "But all of a sudden a voice
bursts into the middle of the negotiations and some guy says, "Listen,
buddy, if you don't want the ten-and-a-half million, I'll take it.' "
Steinberg got Aikman $11.037 million, over six years,
but that was only one of the agent's achievements this off-season. Six of the
16 NFL quarterbacks whose contracts average more than $1 million a year are
Steinberg clients (see chart), including Minnesota's Wade Wilson, who signed a
four-year agreement for $4.35 million on Sunday. Four of these Steinberg
millionaires made their big hits in a dizzying month of negotiations this
spring that virtually rebuilt the salary structure for NFL quarterbacks.
From March 19 to April 20, Steinberg signed New
England's Tony Eason, the Jets' Ken O'Brien, Houston's Warren Moon and Aikman
to deals that covered 16 years and were worth $27,662 million—more than $1.7
million per year per player, on average. Eason played in only six games in 1987
and 1988 because of nagging injuries, but his new two-year contract with the
Patriots will give him $138,000 more this year than last. Moon's five-year, $10
million contract with the Oilers is guaranteed, a rarity in the NFL, and he
will be making $4 million a year by the time the deal runs out in 1993—when he
Eason signed first, after the Pats' new owner, Victor
Kiam, interceded. Kiam was wary of giving a significant raise to a guy who
hadn't contributed much since 1986. In response, Steinberg offered Kiam this
analogy: "Suppose you had a ditchdigger who was one of the best
ditchdiggers there is, and through no fault of his own he was covered by a
landslide of dirt. He was disabled for two years, then came back ready and
healthy to work. He should make what his ditchdigger peers make." Bingo.
Agreement on the contract—two years for $2.35 million—was reached that day.
O'Brien had biceps tendinitis in his throwing arm last
season, and it cost him his role as the Jets' starter in the middle of the
year. But O'Brien, whose contract had expired, was healthy enough to attract
some attention as a free agent. On March 31, O'Brien closed a three-year deal
for more than $4 million—and the Jets threw in $75,000 to pay part of a
disability insurance policy. A week later, Steinberg struck the Moon deal with
Houston. It turned on the fact that the Oilers believe they are poised to make
a serious championship run, and Moon was a Pro Bowl player last year.
Aikman's contract was tougher to get. Dallas's first
offer, made before the Cowboys had committed to take Aikman as the No. 1 pick
in this year's draft, was to match Tampa Bay quarterback Vinny Testaverde's
contract, plus a dollar. In other words, six years for $8,200,001. But in early
April, Steinberg overheard Cowboy owner Jerry Jones tell a fan in the
Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport that the team would take Aikman in the draft.
Steinberg's approach became: You're going to draft him, so let's get serious
about money. The final negotiating session was held on April 20 at 7 a.m. in
Thousand Oaks, Calif., where Steinberg and Aikman talked, by a satellite-TV
link, to Jones's side in Dallas. "Ultramodern negotiations," Steinberg
says. "We used fax machines, car phones, satellites."
Steinberg's quarterback talks weren't finished. He and
two associates, Jeff Moorad and Steve Baker, were busy until two one morning in
Berkeley last week, brainstorming on the Wilson deal. But Steinberg's most
intense negotiating weeks were over. "I don't think I ever had more than
four or five hours of sleep a night for six weeks, and many nights I went
without it," says Steinberg, whose standard 4% cut earned him well over $1
million on that $27 million worth of business. "But it was
[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of
magazine or PDF.]