Someone asked Joe Theismann where his contract negotiations are at the moment.

"My contract is somewhere . . . Where I don't know," the quarterback said.

Where it ought to be is in his hand, signed by him and Jack Kent Cooke, the Redskins' owner.

"There's room to compromise," Theismann said of his seeking a reported $1.8 million and the Redskins' offer of $1.4 million for four years. "The question is, when do we sit down again?"

The Redskins' general manager, Bobby Beathard, says he is willing to listen to Joe anytime. But no talks are scheduled. Not that it matters. The club's best offer has been made, the general manager says, and that's that.

"It's not a bad contract," Theismann said of it. "But you have to look at the particulars." Though he wouldn't go into the particulars, he seemed to suggest the Redskins' offer included incentive clauses.

"I saw where Wayne Gretzky said he didn't want any incentive clauses in his contract. I don't, either. I don't want to be paid such-and-such for throwing X number of touchdown passes or having only X interceptions. You pay me to win football games. I don't need incentives to do what you are paying me to do."

If the Redskins' offer is their last, too bad.

It's not much of a distance between 1.4 and 1.8, and both parties owe enough to each other to take a few steps toward the middle.

Theismann has earned every dollar here, not once stooping to the greedy jock banditry of renegotiation. In many fans' eyes, Theismann is the Redskins. A $1.8 million package would be a nice raise, for sure, but hardly outrageous these days. He'll back off some, too.

The Redskins paid Theismann handsomely for five benchwarming years. They stuck with him when he seemed a panic-stricken kid who would never grow up under pressure. It would be nice if both sides said, "Hey, loyalty's worth something. This hasn't been a bad deal so far. Let's compromise on that teeny-tiny 4/10ths of a decimal point."

Not that the Redskins have to, from a cold business point of view. Like all NFL teams, they hold players in virtual servitude.

It works this way . . .

Joe Theismann is, hah-hah, a free agent. He can make a deal with any team. Fat chance of that, because the players' union agreed in 1977 to a compensation rule that would force anyone signing Theismann to give the Redskins two No. 1 draft choices.

Not a single team contacted Walter Payton last winter. He was a, hah-hah, free agent. No one wants Walter Payton at the high price of his salary plus two No. 1s. If no one wants Payton, who wants Theismann?

That's why the Redskins can make one offer and say take it or leave it.

Theismann's only option is the Canadian Football League. Even with Genius George in Montreal, that is hardly an option. Theismann has a miniconglomerate of media/business connections in the Washington area. His retirement fortune will be built here as a Redskin hero, not in Montreal as a carpetbagging American.

Someday, this servitude will end.

Someday, the players' union will wake up and hear the birdies sing. They will attack the NFL where it is weakest. The old Redskin fan, Abe Lincoln, made slavery a no-no back when Billy Kilmer was a kid. If the players' union must strike, it ought to do it to gain true free agency. A player must be able to sell his services without strings attached.

As a safety net for the properly cherished competitive balance, NFL teams ought to have a first right of refusal. If Joe Theismann is a free agent, say, and wants to sign with San Diego, the Redskins could keep him by matching San Diego's offer.

The players union insists no teams will bid on free agents. The NFL is, the union says, a conspiracy of cheapskates with no economic incentive to win. Were the Super Bowl winner-take-all for $50 million, the union says, you'd see George Allen coaching in the United States.

That is the tallest stack of thin baloney ever sliced.

Economic incentive to win is made clear by luxury boxes, rising ticket prices, concession receipts and increasingly larger stadiums. The primary reason no one bids on free agents is the compensation rule. Do away with it, and teams will pay $1 million to a Walter Payton. Such salary to a player whose career can end instantly is insurable; Lloyd's of London can not give back a team's two No. 1s.

Just for argument, let's say the union is right and no one bids for free agent Theismann.

What then?

Then it is time for salary arbitration, the machinery that now settles contract disputes in baseball.

Let an arbitrator negotiate the differences between Theismann and the Redskins.

All that is in some dim future, out there beyond this winter's management-labor negotiations. Still, it is a measure of the NFL's death-grip on players that Joe Theismann, his team's most valuable player over the last three seasons, is reduced to grasping at the Genius George option.

Theismann won't go to Canada any more than Pierre Trudeau will bus tables for Mel Krupin.

But Joe uses his little leverage when he says of Genius George: "Coach Allen is a great coach, and he is the biggest thing to happen to the CFL since Leo Cahill." Cahill's Toronto Argonauts of the early 1970s, with a kid quarterback named Theismann, went to the league championship game.

"You can talk about Larry Brown's legs or Billy Kilmer's toughness or Diron Talbert's leadership or Pat Fischer's style of coverage," Theismann said. "But it always comes back to Coach Allen. The man in charge deserves the credit."

Without missing a beat, Theismann then praised the Redskins' current coach, Joe Gibbs. "Joe now can accomplish the same things in different ways. With Coach Allen, I was always outside of the six or seven guys he was close to. I was envious of the loyalty I saw he had to those guys. Now I feel like I have that closeness with Joe Gibbs, and I don't want to lose it."

So Theismann would walk part of the way down from his 1.8. The Redskins ought to take a step or two up.