Stalemated over the double-edged issues of paying more money to their players, and sharing more locally-generated revenues among themselves, NFL owners will meet Thursday in New York to determine if there is some brand of 11th-hour magic capable of avoiding the chaos that is about to ensue without an extension to the league's collective bargaining agreement.
No one should expect commissioner Paul Tagliabue, however, to pull a rabbit out of the salary cap in this critical round of labor negotiations.
The league's Management Council Executive Committee, comprised of eight owners and high-ranking team officials, on Wednesday voted unanimously in New York to reject the NFL Players Association's latest proposal on an extension to the CBA. As a precursor to the Thursday meeting, which is expected to be attended by virtually every owner, the Wednesday move by the executive committee of the league's labor arm likely will be representative of the sentiments of the general membership.
Barring an upset of monumental proportions, and a dramatic shift in stances, there will be no deal. The new league year, and the free agency period, will begin as scheduled Friday at 12:01 a.m., and both sides will proceed, at least for now, as if the 2007 season will be a so-called "uncapped" year.
ESPN.com confirmed the league is still offering players 56.2 percent of its revenues. The NFLPA is seeking 60.3 percent. That's a difference of approximately $320 million per year over the course of the proposed extension, which would take the league through the 2013 season.
"I wouldn't expect any miracles at this point," said one owner who participated in the Wednesday meeting of the executive committee. "It is what it is. And what it is, I'd say, is a mess. There doesn't seem to be any way out of it. The people who think all of the [rhetoric] of the last few days is just brinksmanship, and that something big is going to happen [on Thursday] to bail us all out well, unless I fell asleep during the [Wednesday] discussions, it simply isn't going to happen."
While some owners still contend they could push through an accord with the union, and then worry about resolving their own intramural bickering over revenue sharing after hammering out an extension to the collective bargaining agreement, NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw continues to insist he will not strike a deal without the owners reaching internal accord on how they will split local revenues.
And, in a strange twist, Upshaw has allies among many of the owners in that regard.
The irony is that it is now a group of steadfast owners from lower-revenue franchises who would block any attempt to extend the CBA without a revenue sharing plan that accommodates their needs. There has actually been more softening by the alliance of eight to nine high-revenue teams, several league sources allowed Wednesday night, than by the lower-revenue clubs.
According to several sources, nine to 10 owners from some of the league's lowest revenue-producing franchises are adamant that any CBA extension must be accompanied by an amenable revenue-sharing plan, one that addresses their concerns about the ever-increasing disparity between the NFL "haves" and "have nots." It takes only nine votes to veto most important league proposals, and the contingent of low-revenue teams has sufficient votes to shoot down a CBA extension.
Under terms of one rumored proposal on revenue sharing, it would have cost most teams at the top of the money-producing ladder $10-$15 million per year. The league's highest revenue producer, the Washington Redskins, would have been taxed $25-$30 million annually. But even then, additional revenues would not have trickled down to the lowest earning franchises at a number agreeable to most of those clubs' owners.
Said a high-ranking official from one of the low-revenue teams: "It's funny how the worm has turned. There has been more of an erosion from the [high-revenue] teams than from our group. We're pretty solid. No revenue-sharing, no CBA extension, and that's how it's going to be. There are owners from the [low-revenue] teams who just feel our financial futures are at stake here. I mean, to give the players 60 percent [of the league] revenues, for a team taking in $300 million a year, that's one thing. For a team that's got, say, $100 million in revenues, it's too big a piece of the pie."
The point could be moot, though, since the league said in a Tuesday statement which announced the Thursday morning meeting of the membership that internal revenue sharing will not be part of the agenda. So unless the revenue-sharing issue is suddenly broached, which apparently is a long shot, it will not be dealt with Thursday. And without a resolution of the revenue sharing, assuming the nine to 10 owners from low-revenue franchises don't break ranks, there will be no extension to the CBA.
All of which had some team officials on Wednesday night questioning why they are even traveling to New York for the Thursday meeting.
Franchises that still face severely bloated salary caps, and who likely will spend much of Thursday trying to restructure the contracts of some veterans and releasing other players to squeeze under the spending limit for 2006, suggested Wednesday their time could be better spent. Sitting in a meeting at which the current stalemate over the CBA extension isn't likely to be resolved certainly won't help ameliorate the problems of the many teams that still must pare players before the start of free agency.
Teams began trimming players on Wednesday, with at least 14 veterans jettisoned, including some high profile players such as Miami cornerback Sam Madison, defensive tackles Sam Adams of Buffalo and Brentson Buckner of the Panthers, Bills safety Lawyer Milloy, Tennessee offensive tackle Brad Hopkins, Denver defensive end Trevor Pryce and running backs Stephen Davis of Carolina and Mike Anderson of the Broncos, among others. The bloodletting will continue on Thursday.
Further compounding the problem -- at least somewhat -- is that the 2006 salary cap limit, delivered to teams on Wednesday, is actually smaller than anticipated. League sources said the cap figure, which was expected to be $95-$96 million, was set at $94.5 million. Historically the cap figure has subsequently been adjusted upward a bit and, with some challenges pending, that probably will be the case again. But for the teams struggling to nudge under the cap, the $94.5 million figure didn't offer much relief.
The NFL did grant cap-strapped team one extension, moving the Thursday deadline for making roster moves in advance of free agency from 4 p.m. ET to 10 p.m. ET.
The league also released to the 32 teams the qualifying offers for restricted free agents. The qualifying offers allow club to retain a right of first refusal on three-year veterans, or to be compensated with draft choices if a player signs an offer sheet with another team and the original franchise doesn't match it.
The low-level offer, which means a team would be compensated with a draft pick commensurate to the round in which a player entered the league, is $712,000. The middle-level offer, which carries first-round compensation, is $1.552 million. And the high-level qualifying offer, which includes first- and third-round compensation, is $2.069 million.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.