Save for a dispute over a $35,000 signing bonus, Washington's Joe Theismann quite likely would be the quarterback of the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII Sunday.

Theismann and the Dolphins, who chose him on the fourth round of the 1971 draft, had agreed on a contract later that year, but it was never signed. Instead, Theismann went to the Canadian Football League, playing for three years with the Toronto Argonauts.

"There were a lot of bad feelings about what I did in the city of Miami and maybe there still is," Theismann said today. "I'm sure Don Shula hasn't forgotten it.

"It's a bit of a special feeling to finally get to the Super Bowl and have it against the Dolphins. I believe that things in life run full cycle and this is just another example. Remember, I was under contract, in principle, to them while they want to three Super Bowls. Only I was in Canada."

Shula is saying very little about the problems Miami had with Theismann. Today, he said simply: "We could have had him, but we didn't. But we are doing fine (without him)."

It has taken Theismann 12 years to prove to Miami and the rest of the league that he should have been taken much higher than the fourth round. He said he always considered himself "a first-round draft choice who got taken in the wrong round. I guess I was the only one then who thought I was that good."

Now he is preparing for his first Super Bowl after finishing the regular season as the NFC's top-rated quarterback, after being selected for the first time to the NFC Pro Bowl team and after completing 69 percent of his passes in the first three playoff games.

Although he is downplaying his troubles with the Dolphins, Theismann is a proud man who is motivated by such slights. Certainly, he would like to play well in this game to add the last touch of irony to the story.

Theismann talked candidly today about the 1971 dealings, which centered around terms of his signing bonus.

Acting as his own agent--Notre Dame Coach Ara Parseghian was an unofficial adviser--Theismann negotiated a contract with the Dolphins that called for the bonus to be paid out over a three-year period. Theismann went on television and said that he had agreed to terms and would be a Miami player that fall.

But Miami owner Joe Robbie wanted a clause inserted in the contract that would force Theismann to repay any part of the bonus he had received if, for some reason, he did not report to the team's training camp during the life of the contract. Theismann balked.

"Maybe if I knew more about negotiating and wasn't so young and naive, I could have handled it differently," he said. "But all I was trying to do was spread the payments out for tax purposes. It was during the Vietnam war and all that and I guess they were worried I would get drafted or something. But they wanted me to even give back money I had already been paid. To me, it was just a signing bonus, not something I was liable for in future years."

So Theismann began negotiations with Toronto, which offered him basically the same contract as the Dolphins, but without the bonus stipulation. Discouraged over the drawn-out wrangling with Miami, Theismann signed with the Argonauts. He received $50,000 a year, plus the bonus, which he said made him the highest-paid player in the league.

"I talked to John Bassett Sr., who owned the Toronto team, and asked him not to release anything until I had called Don Shula and told him," Theismann said. "But the next morning, at 7:30, I get this call. It's Don. He says to me, 'what the heck is going on here?' He was really upset.

"He flew to South Bend and talked to me, to try to rectify it, but I told him I was going to Canada . . . Later, in 1972, Bob Griese broke his leg and Earl Morrall was quarterbacking them in the Super Bowl (against the Redskins). A writer called me and asked me if I had any regrets, since I could have been the quarterback. I told him my conscience was clear."

In his first season in the CFL, Theismann led the Argos to the Gray Cup, where they lost. When he finished his Canadian obligation, he wanted to play in the NFL. But he decided that, with Griese at his peak, he had no immediate future with the Dolphins.

He told Shula he wanted his rights traded, then he began bargaining with other teams. He ultimately signed with the Redskins in 1974, after Washington sent a No. 1 draft choice to Miami. The Dolphins used that pick to select starting linebacker Larry Gordon.

"I met with George Allen and he put down a list of things, why I should play with the Redskins," Theismann said. "I looked at the situation at Washington and figured that they had two old quarterbacks in Billy Kilmer and Sonny Jurgensen. I knew I wouldn't be happy being No. 2. I just wanted a chance to compete for the starting job, and I thought that chance would come quickly in Washington.

"I just never realized that Billy would regain his youth and last as long as he did . . . I can't tell you how many times I asked George to trade me. One time I told him, 'trade me now and then bring me back when I'm 30.' "

Now Theismann, the most interviewed Redskin here, says, "I'm as happy as I could be. Being here in the Super Bowl, it's my greatest thrill as a football player. I'm loving every minute of it. And I'm glad I'm here as a Washington Redskin.

"I don't look back and wish I had done things differently, not when I feel this upbeat."