Show Of Arms

A powerful agent is pulling the strings on the biggest quarterback shuffle ever
April 24, 1994

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.

However, it still takes a lot of bait to hook the big fish. Last Saturday, Moon signed a cap-be-damned, two-year contract for $5.5 million, with an option for a third year. The biggest name in this quarterback scramble, the 37-year-old Moon was hurt that the Oilers had jilted him. He wanted to finish his career in Houston, where he lives with his wife and four children and where he is deeply involved in community work, but the Oilers decided to dump his $3.25 million annual salary in favor of the smaller paycheck—not to mention the younger arm and legs—of Moon's '93 backup, Cody Carlson. Yet Moon found himself reenergized by the move to Minnesota, and the Vikings are positively floating.

Moon donned a full Viking uniform on Saturday afternoon and threw some passes on the Minnesota practice field in Eden Prairie during a photo shoot. Watching this, coach Dennis Green became so excited that he leaned over to Steinberg and said, "This is going to be the best deal you ever made."

That would be saying something, because Steinberg also represents Steve Young of the San Francisco 49ers and Troy Aikman of the Dallas Cowboys, two multimillionaire quarterbacks who will not be moving this spring. But Moon and Minnesota do appear to be the perfect marriage. "One thing that really impresses me about the Vikings," said Moon on Sunday, "is how they protect the passer. And now they've added [tackle] Chris Hinton and [tight end] Adrian Cooper. That means a lot less wear and tear on me." From Minnesota's standpoint, Moon is the first marquee quarterback in purple since Fran Tarkenton retired in 1978.

To stay in Houston, Moon would have considered rolling back his salary, but the Oilers chose to hand the offense to the 30-year-old Carlson. For Moon and Steinberg, reality set in on April 6, when Houston gave the Vikings permission to contact Moon. Four days before the deal was done, a depressed Moon flew to one of Steinberg's homes, in Newport Beach, Calif., to plan strategy and to get some rest. As the two men sat on an unfurnished deck of the unfinished home that Steinberg is building overlooking the Pacific, Moon said, "I've given the Oilers every ounce of my effort for 10 years. Doesn't that mean anything?"

Evidently not. The cap and Moon's age meant everything, but the Oilers could well be sorry. Not only did they get fleeced in the deal—they'll receive the 117th choice in this year's draft and a pick likely to be in the 70's or 80's a year from now—but they also traded an athlete who has played much younger than his years. Moon has made the Pro Bowl in each of the last six seasons, and his average performance for the four seasons of this decade has been a 61% completion rate, 3,846 yards and 24 touchdowns, with 17 interceptions. This is a fading quarterback? Ridiculous.

The Oilers handled the deal sloppily too. On April 13, Houston held a press conference to announce the re-signing of free-agent veteran defensive lineman Glenn Montgomery. Moon was watching the press conference on TV when Oiler owner Bud Adams said that an agreement in principle had been reached to trade Moon to Minnesota. "They were classless to the end," a friend of Moon's said over the weekend. "Warren figured the trade was going to happen, but then he sees it announced on TV, without their even calling him or telling him in person."

Said Moon on Sunday, "I'd been trying to get the Oilers to tell me for a week and a half what they wanted to do with me. They'd never tell me. I never gave the Oilers any problems. I always represented the club well. I thought because of that they'd do this the classy way. Then they claimed they couldn't reach me. Well, I was at the facility working out till three that day. They made their announcement at 4:45. I got word that night that Bud Adams was trying to reach me, but that's too late for me. If he'd wanted to reach me to appear at his car dealership, he could have found me, that's for sure."

While Moon felt rejected by Houston, he was embraced by Minnesota. St. Paul's mayor, Norm Coleman, faxed Moon a gushing letter in which he offered to help establish a northern outpost for Moon's Crescent Moon Foundation in the Twin Cities. When Moon landed at the Minneapolis airport last Friday night, a high school band greeted him and his wife, Felicia, and some startled travelers gave him an impromptu standing ovation. Moon is seen as the last piece in the Vikings' Super Bowl puzzle.

Moon signed his contract and countless autographs on Saturday and began to get a good feeling about his new situation. The purple jersey reminded him of his days as a Washington Husky. "I look good in purple," he said, smiling.

In the limo that took him to the airport for the flight back to Houston on Saturday night, he said to Steinberg and Felicia, "All these years I've had the dream of getting to the Super Bowl, and I just have the feeling that now it's going to happen. For all the trauma of the last few weeks, this might be the best thing that could have happened to me."

A month earlier the Vikings had been the favorite in the Scott Mitchell sweepstakes, but Minnesota general manager Jeff Diamond had balked when Detroit pushed the signing bonus to $5 million—an astounding sum, considering that Mitchell had played only one half of one NFL season, with the Miami Dolphins. "It was a wild ride in the quarterback market," Diamond says. "But the ride turned out to be worth it. We got a great quarterback and a classy leader, and we feel we're a solid contending playoff team now. You have to have a top quarterback to win big. Look at the quarterbacks in the championship games last year—Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Jim Kelly, Joe Montana. You need that type of quarterback to get to the final four, and Warren's that type of quarterback."

The deal was a triumph for Steinberg, though it could be said that his biggest coup was landing a starting job for Harbaugh, who in Chicago piloted the lowest-rated passing attack in the league in 1993. The Colts, who will draft No. 2 this Sunday, are expected to grab San Diego State running back Marshall Faulk (page 36), which means they will probably pass up the draft's two prime quarterback prospects, Heath Shuler of Tennessee and Trent Dilfer of Fresno State. If that happens, Harbaugh will most likely be the Indianapolis quarterback for the foreseeable future.

Bill Tobin, the Colts' new vice president of football operations, was the man who drafted Harbaugh for the Bears in the first round in 1987. Minutes after trading George to Atlanta last month, Tobin turned to Steinberg and said, "Let's talk about Jim Harbaugh."

Steinberg worked quickly to get Harbaugh's name on a Colt contract. "We thought it was important to get him there fast, hopefully to preclude them from drafting a quarterback with the second pick," says Steinberg. "Tobin's love for him wasn't going to go away, but we had to give [coach] Ted Marchibroda reason to pass on a rookie quarterback. So we wanted to get Jim signed and in there so they could see what they had before the draft." The deal was done within 14 days of the George trade and 17 days before the draft.

It's fun to have a hot stove league in the NFL after all the boring off-seasons with no player movement and no news. But what effect will this quarterback shuffle have on the game? "This isn't baseball," says New York Giant general manager George Young. "It's not like buying a second baseman and plugging him into your lineup and just playing. One thing that scares me about free agency is breaking up chemistry and disrupting timing. Those things are crucial to our game."

Says quarterback Bernie Kosar, who has bounced from the Cleveland Browns to the Cowboys to the Dolphins in six months: "Over time, if quarterbacks keep moving, it could definitely have an undesirable effect. The toughest things are the little things. Who's the hot receiver on the blitz? How do the receivers like to catch the ball? Where precisely do they end up on a particular route? When I went to Dallas last year, I had a big problem with my cadence at the line. [The linemen kept false-starting in practice because they weren't used to Kosar's signal-calling.] So you end up thinking a lot more than you should out there instead of just reacting."

Still, the new free-agent world of the NFL keeps turning. Last Friday night Steinberg sat in his office on a hill above the Berkeley campus. He was returning one of the 120 phone calls he had received that day. He had Friesz on the line. "Hey," Steinberg said, "this is the best news of the off-season. Washington's one of the most heated-up football towns there is, and you'll be playing for Norv Turner, one of the best quarterback coaches there is. Troy absolutely loves him. You play well, and you're the hottest free agent in the league a year from now."

The matchmaker was already looking for the next match.

ILLUSTRATIONVICTOR JUHASZMoon (1) is chief among the signal-callers whose careers Steinberg has at his fingertips. ILLUSTRATIONVICTOR JUHASZBy signing up 20 quarterbacks, Steinberg has made a sizable impact on the NFL landscape. ILLUSTRATIONVICTOR JUHASZMoon might have taken a pay cut to stay an Oiler, but he struck gold in Minnesota.

Dan McGwire
Seattle Seahawks
Bill Musgrave
San Francisco 49ers
Steve Young
San Francisco 49ers
Tommy Maddox
Denver Broncos
Warren Moon
Minnesota Vikings
Drew Bledsoe
New England Patriots
Browning Nagle
New York Jets
David Brown
New York Giant
John Friesz
Washington Redskins
Mike Tomczak
Pittsburgh Steelers
Neil O'Donnell
Pittsburgh Steelers
David Klingler
Cincinnati Bengals
Erik Wilhelm
Cincinnati Bengals
Jim Harbaugh
Indianapolis Colts
Jeff George
Atlanta Falcons
Troy Aikman
Dallas Cowboys
Wade Wilson
New Orleans Saints