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Thursday, March 2, 2006
Updated: March 3, 4:22 PM ET
NFL owners delay free agency three days

ESPN.com news services

NEW YORK -- A few hours after NFL owners rejected a proposal from the players' union, the league extended its deadline for free agency by three days and resumed talks aimed at an extension of the collective bargaining agreement.

The breakthrough came with a mutual agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players' Association on Thursday afternoon.

Representatives of the NFL and the players union resumed talks Friday in New York on an collective bargaining extension. The one major issue to tackle, sources told ESPN's Chris Mortensen, is the formula that determines how the league counts player bonuses over the life of a contract. It's a term that both sides commonly refer to as "cash over cap." The sides are working on a formula that will satisfy lower-revenue clubs' concerns that traditionally clubs with larger revenue streams pay more in bonuses, yet find ways in which that extra cash doesn't violate salary-cap rules.

The two sides had not spoken publicly as of late Friday afternoon.

Things had looked bleak Thursday morning when owners rejected the union's latest proposal. No new talks were scheduled. While the owners were willing to give the players 56.2 percent of total revenues, the players were asking for 60 percent along with a revenue sharing formula among owners.

Now, there is a little breathing room to try to do a deal.

The owners' vote to reject a union proposal after a 57-minute meeting earlier in the day had seemed to end 13 years of labor peace, but Steelers owner Dan Rooney and Panthers owner Jerry Richardson stayed behind to keep talks alive.

The vote left the salary cap at $94.5 million for the start of free agency, which had been scheduled to begin Friday.

Without a new deal, teams that expected a cap about $10 million higher would have to cut players to become cap compliant, casting more players onto the market, but leaving little cap space to sign them. Teams now have until 6 p.m. ET Sunday to waive players and until midnight to be under the cap.

A high-level source with one NFL team told ESPN.com the league has informed teams that any player placed on waivers during this period of uncertainty can be recalled from waivers until there is more clarity about the pending free-agency period.

A lack of a deal could also have an impact on the best players in the free-agent class, led by two running backs: NFL MVP Shaun Alexander of Seattle and Edgerrin James of Indianapolis. They would certainly find fewer buyers and less money available, although two of the teams with a lot of cap room are Minnesota and Arizona, who could certainly use the two backs or Baltimore's Jamal Lewis, another running back.

The quick action by the owners, who affirmed their management council's rejection of the union's last offer, cast a pall around the league as general managers struggled to find cap room and agents tried to figure out how to sell clients in a market with less money and a potential glut of players.

"The situation is about as dire as dire can be," commissioner Paul Tagliabue said after a meeting so short that a lot of people who expected a 12-hour session arrived after most of the owners had departed the New York hotel where they met, braving a mix of ice and snow to try to get home quickly.

Agents and even some league officials held out hope for a last-minute agreement or an extension of the free-agent deadline, and the three-day delay may be a sign that something is in the works.

"I won't come down," said Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, who is asking for 60 percent of league revenue for players, four percentage points more than the owners are offering. "The players know that. Only the owners can make a proposal."

That the situation seems so dire is unusual in that there are two years left on the labor agreement first signed in 1993 and extended continually before the deadline.

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 Thursday.

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

The ramifications for this year go beyond free agency. 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, who is 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."

The Associated Press, senior NFL writer John Clayton and ESPN's Chris Mortensen contributed to this report.