NFL free agency delayed to continue labor contract talks

By Dave Goldberg The Associated Press

NEW YORK – The NFL delayed the start of the free-agent signing period by three days yesterday, seven hours after the owners had seemed to end all hope for a labor contract extension.

The move came just as a number of teams far over the salary cap were about to dump high-paid veterans. It provides a cooling off period for the league and the NFL Players Association to reach a deal and keep those cuts under control.

A bizarre day of twists and turns began when the owners took just 57 minutes to rubber stamp a recommendation by their labor committee to turn down the union’s final offer – a meeting so short that many people who expected a long session showed up after owners had already left.

“The situation is as dire as dire can be,” commissioner Paul Tagliabue said after owners and team officials raced for flights that had taken them thousands of miles for a meeting of less than an hour.

Seven hours later, it wasn’t quite as dire, although league officials cautioned that nothing had been done.

Still, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello noted in a statement that the union had agreed to push back the free-agency deadline “to provide time to resume negotiations.”

That is an indication that despite the rhetoric, contact continues between Tagliabue and union head Gene Upshaw, who have always had a close relationship. The union is asking for 60 percent of the league’s total revenues go to the players, the NFL is offering 56.2 percent.

The extension puts off free agency for a class led by two running backs: NFL MVP Shaun Alexander of Seattle and Edgerrin James of Indianapolis.

There are two years left on the labor agreement first signed in 1993 and extended continually before the deadline.

But unless there is an agreement, there will be no salary cap in 2007, which could create big-spending “haves” and low-revenue “have-nots,” a situation that has prevailed in other sports such as baseball. That also has traps for teams and players: a player would be eligible for free agency only after six years instead of the current four; there would be no salary minimum, and annual raises would be limited to 30 percent.

That is complicated by an internal dispute over revenue sharing between big- and small-money teams, a battle that has accelerated as outside revenue has increased from sources from stadium naming rights to local radio. That money is expected to be included in the new labor contract for the first time.

Upshaw contends that internal dispute should be settled before the labor agreement is reached, but the owners didn’t even discuss it yesterday.

“Sure we should discuss it,” said Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson, one of the have-nots. “But we didn’t.”

The three-day respite gave a lot of club officials a little relief.

“Whatever the rules are, we’ll follow them,” said Tennessee general manager Floyd Reese, who spent the last three days trying to cut an estimated $18 million from the team’s payroll. “I personally think it’s healthier for the league to have a cap, but that’s my opinion.”

The ramifications of a low cap and a lot of players on the market – the likely situation if there is no agreement – go beyond free agency. If there is still no deal by Monday, cap problems will make it hard for teams to sign their draft picks, especially the high ones.

“We can always find creative ways to do things,” said Leigh Steinberg, the agent for Southern California quarterback Matt Leinart, expected to be chosen no later than third in the draft.

“But I hope by draft time we will be beyond that. As teams peer into the abyss, as they peer into the apocalypse, sanity will return. When the NFLPA and management truly recognize the nature of no agreement, their intelligence and rationality will force them into making a deal.”

Leinart wouldn’t be the only one to wait. So will many free agents.

In addition to Alexander, James and Baltimore running back Jamal Lewis, among the most desirable players on the market include San Francisco linebackers Julian Peterson and Andre Carter; wide receivers Antwaan Randle El of Pittsburgh and David Givens of New England; cornerbacks Charles Woodson of Oakland and Ty Law, a Pro Bowler with the Jets last season, and linebacker Will Witherspoon of Carolina.

Then there is quarterback Drew Brees of San Diego, although his value went down when he injured his throwing shoulder in the final game of 2005.

One star was guaranteed free agency in 2007 when Tennessee decided to pay $1 million to quarterback Steve McNair, voiding the final three years of a contract that would have kept him with the Titans until 2009. McNair will still count for a whopping $23.5 million against the salary cap due to previous bonuses in his contract.