3-day delay buys time again for NFL, union

Despite talks stalemate, free-agency deadline postponed by 72 hours

Pro football

March 06, 2006|By BILL ORDINE | BILL ORDINE,SUN REPORTER

Both sides in the NFL labor dispute are giving peace another chance.

Facing a midnight deadline, the league postponed the start of free agency late last night for 72 hours, to Thursday at 12:01 a.m. The delay avoided, for the time being, the anticipated release of a substantial number of veteran players as well as serious complications in the near and long term for the league.

The postponement, the second one since Thursday, came after a weekend of negotiations and brinksmanship between negotiators for owners and the NFL Players Association over an extension of the current collective bargaining agreement.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue is expected to take the players union's latest proposal to team owners for consideration at a meeting in Dallas tomorrow. It is unclear whether the owners will discuss the issue of revenue sharing that has affected the labor talks.

Before the postponement, NFL teams were required to make their roster cuts by 11:30 last night to reach the league's mandated salary cap level of $94.5 million per team.

Free agency had been scheduled to begin at 12:01 a.m. today, triggering a chain reaction of consequences for the next two seasons and possibly beyond.

At one point last night after talks broke off before the 11:30 waiver deadline, each side predictably blamed the other.

The union focused on the percentage of revenues that was being offered, while management emphasized the total dollar amount. NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw said that the owners offered what amounted to a lower percentage of total football revenues than the players got in 2005 - specifically, 56.5 percent going forward compared with what would have been 58.9 percent last year.

NFL executive vice president for labor relations Harold Henderson countered by saying in a statement that the league's offer "would raise player compensation to unprecedented levels," an increase of $1.5 billion over the course of a six-year extension.

Without an extension, NFL clubs this season will have to live with a relatively restrictive salary cap, which was expected to mean deep roster cuts for some teams, such as Washington, Oakland, Miami and Kansas City.

Free-agent players likely will suffer because there will be fewer teams shopping for talent even though some franchises - for instance, Minnesota and Arizona - have lots of cap room.

Yesterday, the Raiders announced they had cut their starting quarterback, Kerry Collins, who reportedly would have counted more than $9 million against the cap, but the team now has more time to decide on Collins because of the 72-hour delay.

The New York Jets cut six-time Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae and restructured quarterback Chad Pennington's contract to provide cap relief. Mawae's release was not entirely unexpected considering he's 35 and missed 10 games last year with an injury.

An extension of the agreement was expected to add about $10 million to each team's cap.

More long term, the ramifications of no extension is that 2007 is supposed to be a capless season, but player free-agency rules also become more restrictive. The future beyond that is murkierwith a work stoppage possible, free agency potentially becoming a free-for-all, and the college draft possibly disappearing.

On the surface, the main issue has been how much of the league's revenues will be allocated for player salaries.

But just as problematic for Tagliabue, who sits on the owners' side of the bargaining table, has been forging an agreement that would be acceptable to at least 75 percent of those owners; approval from 24 of the league's 32 teams is required for an extension of the deal.

Affecting labor talks are the twin dilemmas of revenue sharing and "cap-over-cash," which have owners divided into camps of big-revenue and small-revenue teams. An extension that does not meet the perceived needs of both camps could be scuttled by a minority bloc on either side.

"I continue to believe that the problem lies with the high-revenue clubs and the revenue-sharing issue," Upshaw said. "Their refusal to share more revenues is making it worse for everybody - players, owners and fans."

Revenue sharing has been a foundation of the league's prosperous run during the current agreement, which was forged in 1993 and extended four times.

But although national TV money and gate receipts - which are shared by the 32 franchises - still make up the bulk of the NFL's income, unshared locally generated cash is becoming more of a factor. Some teams, such as Dallas, Washington and Philadelphia, are able to earn more money from ancillary sources - luxury boxes, for instance - than franchises in, say, Indianapolis and Cincinnati.

Lower-revenue clubs want the more affluent owners to share that money, and that suggestion is being resisted by the bigger money-makers. That leads to the second issue of cash-over-cap, which refers to the discrepancy between a team's actual payroll and its salary cap standing.

The current agreement allows for mechanisms that essentially permit teams to amortize some of a player's contract so that the immediate salary demands can be met while lessening the contract's impact on the cap.

But a team can only take advantage of some of those loopholes if it has the cash on hand to structure such deals, namely with signing bonuses that can be prorated over several years. That's where the teams with more locally generated cash have the upper hand.

Lower-revenue teams reportedly wanted the issue of cash-over-cap addressed in an extension of the agreement, perhaps with a limitation on how much of the actual payroll can be above the cap.

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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