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 to the start of free agency - and the complications that would bring - the league postponed that deadline late last night for 72 hours, to Thursday at 12:01 a.m.

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 reportedly will take the players union's latest proposal to owners at a meeting in Dallas tomorrow for consideration. It is unclear whether the owners will discuss the issue of revenue sharing that has impacted the labor talks.

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

Free agency was scheduled to begin at 12:01 a.m., which would have triggered a chain reaction with potentially serious short- and long-term consequences.

At one point last night after talks broke off, each side predictably blamed the other. In their rhetoric, the union focused on the percentage of revenues that was being offered while management emphasized the dollar amount.

NFL Players Association 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 to what would have been 58.9 percent last year.

NFL negotiator 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, Oak land, 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 cut their starting quarterback, Kerry Collins, who reportedly would have counted more than $9 million against the cap. 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 CBA 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 more murky with 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 a deal that would be acceptable to at least 75 percent of those owners; approval from 24 of the league's 32 teams is required for a CBA extension.

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 life of the current CBA, 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 in come, 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 CBA 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 sign ing 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 a CBA extension, perhaps with a limitation on how much of the actual payroll can be above the cap. Without such an assurance, the labor agreement would be a tough sell to those owners.

Sharing some portion of locally generated revenues also would address the concerns of lower-revenue clubs, but some affluent clubs have balked.

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