Joe Theismann sat at a table in his newest restaurant in suburban Maryland one day last week, autographing pictures that, perhaps coincidentally, do not show him in a Washington Redskin uniform.

"I'm learning an awful lot," he said about his first days as a free agent. "I've found that good faith has been replaced by big business. For the first time since I've been here, I don't know how I stand with the Redskins. I don't know if they want me here anymore. But I just want to be treated like a human being, that's all."

A few hours later, Redskin General Manager Bobby Beathard had just ended a negotiating session with a player's agent. He was planning to talk to a number of Redskins by the end of February about new contracts. He said no calls will be made to Theismann.

"It's a delicate situation," Beathard said. "This is a business transaction with Joe, nothing more. But you have a hard time convincing players that what you offer them at the table doesn't mean you don't like them anymore.

"We've made Joe a very substantial offer, an offer many quarterbacks in this league would love to have. We don't have anything to be apologetic about. But we feel there is improvement to be made before he is one of the top couple of quarterbacks in the league. When he reaches that plateau, he'll be paid accordingly, and not before then."

On opening day of the 1982 NFL season, Theismann almost certainly will be the Redskins' starting quarterback, a role he has filled since replacing Billy Kilmer in 1978. Washington can't risk going with inexperienced Tom Flick, nor is it likely Beathard can make a suitable trade. Theismann's options are limited by the current free agency rules that make movement to another city almost impossible.

Theismann, after eight sometimes stormy but always interesting seasons in Washington, wonders what else he has to do to be embraced wholeheartedly by management.

He is the most visible and probably the most popular player with Redskin fans, a civic-minded family man who has never embarrassed the franchise with an off-field escapade. He has played hurt, he has played behind patchwork offensive lines and he has played with limited help from his running backs and receivers. He has missed one game in the last four years, and last season he produced the second-best passing statistics in Redskins history.

But when he sat down at the bargaining table with Beathard, he received an offer he calls insulting. He wonders aloud "why nothing that I've done seems to matter? It's such a cold approach. It's as if nothing off the playing field matters at all. I know this is a business, but I'm an idealist."

He is mystified by the Redskins' take-it-or-leave-it contract stance and he still is hurt by their refusal to settle the contract problem last summer, an action he interprets as an indication of the team's lack of confidence in his ability.

Beathard wonders how Theismann and his agent, Ed Keating, went about deciding on their initial contract proposal, which the quarterback says would put him near what the top five league quarterbacks are receiving. Why? "Because I think I rank in the top five," Theismann said.

"I don't blame them for shooting for the moon," Beathard said. "But you have to be realistic about it. What we think is a fair offer, they think is an insult. But we don't lowball our offers. We come in with what we think is fair instead of going through the motions.

"Is Joe one of the best five? Our offer would get him up there, but I don't know what the top five are making, so I can't say for sure."

Theismann is not a particular front office favorite at Redskin Park, according to team sources. In management's eyes, he is too self-centered, too inconsistent as a leader and too temperamental on the field to be embraced as if he were another Steve Bartkowski or Joe Montana. Otherwise, his contract squabble would have been worked out long ago.

And there are those statistics that were brought out at the only bargaining session, in January. In the last four years, with Theismann as a starter most of the time, Washington did not make the playoffs and had a 32-32 record. Nor has Theismann led the league in passing or been selected to the Pro Bowl.

Theismann says he has heard Beathard does not particularly like him, although "Bobby has never told me that. We've always gotten along. I like him. I think he is a fine judge of talent, a great scout. They say they like me, but I find that hard to believe anymore. I believe Joe Gibbs and his staff, I believe in them because I can see it in their faces.

"People call me an egotist, they say I'm conceited. I admit I'm very self-confident. If that's a fault, well, then I have one.

"I don't know whether Bobby wants me here or not. But the football team should be first in everybody's mind. I just want to get this settled. I don't want to make a public spectacle about it."

Of all the parties involved in this dispute, Gibbs is cast as the most neutral, especially by Theismann. "I just want Joe to be signed," Gibbs said. "I'm sure he'll work out as always and I'm sure if I want him to go over films with me, he'll do that too. We are counting on him for next season."

Keating, who has been representing athletes for 20 years, says he is disturbed "by increasing indications there is a personality conflict between Joe and Bobby . . . A lot of general managers prefer to have a guy they've drafted as the quarterback. If it's a personality thing, then a decision will have to be made. One will have to go, and it probably won't be the general manager."

Says Beathard: "Heck, I like Joe, and we are going to do what is best for this team. He just is taking all this too personally. Joe Gibbs wants him back and so do we. We fully intend to sign him, Mr. (Jack Kent) Cooke has said so in print. Joe shouldn't always listen to what he hears from other people."

Cooke, who has not yet entered the negotiations, said yesterday "I believe it is going to be resolved. I want it to be resolved. If Joe Theismann wants it to be resolved as strenuously as I do, it will be resolved.

"And I have nothing whatever against Joe. I'm all for him."

Five years ago, when he still was a reserve, Joe Theismann signed a contract that paid him $225,000 last season. According to league sources familiar with figures published in the NFL's annual salary survey, Archie Manning of New Orleans is the highest paid quarterback (and player) in the league, receiving $600,000 in salary and bonuses last year. At least 10 and as many as 15 other quarterbacks have higher current salaries than Theismann. Twelve of those players have been in the league at least one more season than Theismann.

The Redskins and Theismann are reluctant to elaborate on their current salary discussions. But Theismann says the first year of Washington's four-year offer is "insignificant, not much more than the 10 percent raise I'd get anyway."

That would mean the Redskins are offering in the $250,000 range the first season, with raises the next three years.

Theismann says the team's proposal doesn't get him close to the salaries of the best quarterbacks. But Beathard claims the offer eventually would place him near the top five. According to current league salary figures, that would mean Theismann would earn in the $375,000 range by 1985 if he accepted the Redskins' offer. That would make him the highest paid player in team history, passing John Riggins' present $300,000 salary.

Beathard says the club views its proposal "as a package situation. Joe is free to juggle the figures to some extent, depending on what he wants now or later. We just aren't going to increase the total amount of that package." The package is believed to be in the $1.4 million range.

Keating says the Redskins' proposal, the same one they made last summer, "is not too terribly bad." But Keating and Theismann want much more. Theismann says he wants top five money, which certainly includes a healthy signing bonus. Sources say the Redskins policy with veterans is to not offer bonuses.

The highest paid quarterbacks last season were Manning, Ken Stabler ($470,000), Terry Bradshaw ($450,000), Bob Griese ($415,000) and Brian Sipe ($410,000), another Keating client. Theismann apparently isn't seeking those numbers in the early stages of the contract, but there seems no question he wants to be paid in the $450,000 to $500,000 range by 1985. He is believed to be asking for $325,000 next year, plus a bonus of between $100,000 to $150,000. His total package request: in the $1.8 million range.

That leaves the sides about $400,000 apart. The Redskins say they will not increase their offer by $1. Theismann: "I think Mr. Cooke would be disappointed in me if I didn't fight this. I'm a fighter and I'm not going to give in. I want what I think I deserve. But this is a two-way street. We want to negotiate. They don't. I have to consider all my options."

Under the current free agent setup, those options are limited.

Keating has sent letters to seven NFL teams, including Chicago, the New York Giants, Oakland, Los Angeles, Denver and New England, asking if any are interested in Theismann. Since any team signing Theismann would owe the Redskins two first round draft choices as compensation, Keating knows none will make his client an offer. A trade also is possible.

"Chicago already has replied and told us they aren't interested," Keating said. "They also told us that Bobby initiated trade talks with them last fall." The Redskins did talk in October to two other teams, Detroit and Los Angeles, about a possible Theismann trade. Sources said the Rams turned them down and the Lions offered a reserve wide receiver.

For the Redskins to consider a deal involving Theismann, they would have to get a first-string quarterback in return. Four league general managers and personnel men interviewed last week agreed that, because of Theismann's age (32), his erratic play and his failure to get the Redskins into the playoffs, a trade is unlikely.

They also agreed that Theismann would fetch Washington, at best, a second round draft choice unless a team desperately needed a quarterback. Then possibly, a No. 1 pick could be exchanged, but that wouldn't solve the resulting void at quarterback for the Redskins.

Theismann says he would consider a return to the Canadian Football League, where he played three seasons with Toronto "although that's not much of a factor now." He also could decide to sign a no-option, one-year contract calling for a 10 percent raise. That way, he would be able to negotiate next year under the rules of a new collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFL Players Association. That could contain provisions that would lead to improved free agent movement. The old contract expires July 15.

Theismann has two thriving restaurants in the area. Income from those businesses, plus other investments, speaking appearances and endorsements, provides him with income equal to his current $225,000 salary. He has never refuted estimations that he is well on his way to becoming a millionaire.

"Maybe a new contract somewhere else would make up for any money losses I would have here if I left," said Theismann, who also wants to expand a budding movie and television acting career. "I don't want to leave. I love it here, it's my home. but it seems they are saying they would be okay without me."

Keating remains optimistic, though he says the Redskins' tactics have hurt his client.

"This is very difficult for Joe; his head is a little messed up right now because of what they've done, but their current hard line stance is typical of Jack Cooke," Keating said. "But in the end, I think his business judgment will take over. There is always a compromise. But we'd like to talk to Jack.

"They aren't going to want Joe running their football team if he is unhappy. It would be a disaster for everyone if he wasn't happy enough to perform at 100 percent. If this gets too deep, it would be in the best interests of everyone to have him move on. That's something we want to avoid. It just will take patience, that's all, unless their offer is indeed written in granite. Then we could have some trouble."

Says Beathard: "Our offer is our best one. That's something they have to realize. Maybe after they shop around and see how good an offer we've made, things will work out. You don't offer that kind of money if you don't think the guy is darn good. And we think Joe is darn good."

Both sides keep insisting they want to get the matter resolved, but at the moment, there are no negotiation sessions scheduled.