For the last several years, when the NFL has released its official calendar, the date corresponding to the start of the free agency period typically has carried a one-word disclaimer.
This year, it seems, many in the league are hoping the caveat applies.
With the deadline fast approaching for the league and the NFL Players Association to reach an accord on an extension to the collective bargaining agreement, and negotiations suddenly ramped up on a deal that would preclude the 2007 season from being a so-called uncapped year, there is talk that the two sides could decide to delay the start of free agency.
And while the chances of stopping the clock on the March 3 start to free agency are more long shot than legitimate, with some significant shifts in negotiating stances still necessary before such a dramatic move might become reality, there is considerable sentiment for delaying the signing period if the two sides sense a CBA extension can be struck.
Why so? The specter of the end of labor peace and an uncapped season in 2007 is so unnerving, with the ramifications so chaotic, delay is seen as wholly preferable to disaster. And because doing business under the threat of an uncapped season means that the free agent market likely will be marked by inertia, with both players and franchises hesitant about taking the first step into mostly uncharted territory, both sides don't view a delay as an altogether bad thing if it eventually allows them to get back to business as usual.
"Right now, I don't see any deals, especially big deals, getting done [in free agency] under the current circumstances," said one prominent player representative who has nearly a dozen clients who are pending unrestricted free agents. "With a shorter proration period on signing bonuses, the 30-percent rule, and all of the other things attached to incentives and stuff, I don't see how you can do deals. We're going to be frozen. It'll be the Ice Age of free agency. Talk to guys in the [agent] business and they all feel the same way. So it if means waiting a week or two, delaying the start of free agency while they finish an [extension], what's the big deal? It'd be worth it."
Under threat of a $500,000 fine for publicly discussing the CBA negotiations, or the talks aimed at reconfiguring the current revenue-sharing numbers to address the growing disparity between the NFL's haves and have-nots, owners are loath to broach the subjects even off the record. But a few owners willing to talk not-for-attribution acknowledged the league is poised perilously on the precipice of major change if it moves forward without a CBA extension.
"We're going to behead the golden goose," said one NFC owner last week. "And I can't see why both sides would ever let it get to that. Then again, a year ago, I would have told you we'd never, ever let it get this close to happening. I figured there were enough 'poison pills' (in the CBA), things that negatively impacted both sides, to force an extension. But, hey, here we are."
Just where the league and the NFLPA are in their ongoing discussions is much more a matter of speculation than substance.
The fact the two sides are meeting -- it was notable that no high-ranking officials from the NFL or the NFLPA attended the Pro Bowl activities in Hawaii last week, preferring to stay at home on the mainland, at least talking about their differences -- might be a promising sign. So is the fact there have been calculated leaks about a possible delay to the start of the free agency period. But people on both sides of the bargaining table cautioned earlier this week that no one should read too much into those elements.
The NFL is, after all, a deadline league. Historically, very little has been achieved until the 11th hour and until a shotgun is figuratively pointed at someone's head. So the fact there have been negotiating sessions might be little more than the natural reaction to an impasse that's occurred with the clock ticking. There have been hints at progress in some areas, acknowledgement that there remain profound hurdles on major sticking points, and no viable signs yet that the sides are within realistic striking distance of an agreement.
Until the sides narrow the gap to something at least approximating an arm's length schism, the March 3 date for the start of free agency remains intact.
And that means salary cap managers leaguewide, who already have been crunching numbers for months in preparation for the problems that might lie ahead, are ordering up industrial-sized cases of aspirin for the headaches that are looming.
"It's going to be a very difficult circumstance for people to operate systematically and have the kind of money to be actively involved in free agency," Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "It changes some of the rules relative to the system in how you can calculate a guy's salary."
It changes, indeed, a lot of things on both sides.
For instance, players now will need six accrued seasons, not four, to qualify for unrestricted free agent status. So a standout young player such as Chicago Bears three-year veteran linebacker Lance Briggs, who is coming off a Pro Bowl season and whose contract expires after the 2006 season, would have to wait two additional seasons before being unrestricted. The league also would, in an uncapped year, quit funding 401(k) plans and most other fringe benefits, meaning that players would be responsible for those things.
And there would be difficulties, even for the most innovative teams and creative player agents, in meeting financial expectations on most contracts.
The more well-known sticking points: Without an extension to the CBA, teams will be able to amortize signing bonuses over just four seasons, instead of the maximum seven years. Because of the 30-percent rule, which essentially stipulates that a player's basic compensation (his base salary plus the prorated share of his signing bonus for 2006) cannot be increased by more than 30 percent, teams can't make up the difference in smaller signing bonus with fatter base salaries.
But perhaps the biggest problem is that so-called "not likely to be earned incentives" (NLTBE) will count immediately against the cap. In normal circumstances, NLTBE incentives count on the following year's spending limit. So NLTBE's earned in 2005, for instance, count against a team's 2006 cap. But with an uncapped year looming in 2007, such incentives and bonuses that are triggered in 2006 immediately would apply.
Let's consider, then, this hypothetical situation for 2006: A player is close to triggering a NLTBE incentive worth, say, $500,000. But his team is flush up against the salary cap limit for '06, which has been projected at $92 million-$95 million. If the team can't afford the $500,000 cap hit that the incentive would bring, what does it do? It can bench the player to keep him from reaching the thresholds necessary to earn the incentive. It can release him or it can release other players to try to free up cap space.
That could be the kind of conundrum franchises will face in 2006 if an extension to the CBA is not consummated in the next few weeks -- or if sufficient progress isn't made to delay the start of the free agent period.
All of this is why people from management and the rank-and-file hope the tentative notation on the NFL calendar for the start of free agency might be an appropriate one this year.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.