Despite earlier indications that the league had nudged the ball forward in terms of a proposal to share a greater percentage of revenues with its players, the NFL and the NFL Players Association punted Saturday afternoon following two days of last-gasp negotiations.
Representatives from the NFLPA headed back to Washington, D.C., and the league is apparently headed now toward the kind of labor enmity that it has not experienced during the past two decades of unparalleled prosperity. Barring a dramatic reversal of negotiating stances, free agency will begin on Monday at 12:01 a.m., the league will operate with a salary cap of $94.5 million for 2006, and the two sides will go forward with 2007 scheduled to be an "uncapped" year.
And essentially proceed into an uncertain, and potentially perilous future.
"No progress has been made, but we expect more discussions to take place before Sunday night," NFL vice president of public relations Greg Aiello said in a Saturday evening statement. Officials from the NFLPA, however, said there are no further talks scheduled. It is believed that the executive committee of the NFL Management Council, the league's labor arm, was apprised Saturday evening of the stalemate.
Union attorney Jeffrey Kessler, one of the lead negotiators for the NFLPA and part of a small group that huddled with league representatives, termed the negotiations "as dead as a doornail."
Identifying a cause of death, given the veil of secrecy under which the negotiations were conducted for a total of 10-11 hours on Friday and Saturday, might be difficult. But the inability to bridge the differences over two key issues -- the internal revenue sharing among the league's 32 teams and the so-called "cash over cap" problem -- were almost certainly among the components which forced the end to negotiations.
One prominent owner strongly suggested to ESPN.com that those two issues, which he lumped under the umbrella category of "revenue sharing-related things," indeed led to the collapse of discussions.
It was difficult, however, in the immediate wake of Saturday afternoon's events, to even get the two sides to agree on what had transpired during two days at the bargaining table.
For example, two league sources told ESPN and ESPN.com on Saturday that the NFL had increased its offer on how much revenue would be split with players from 56.2 percent to between 58.2 and 58.5 percent. If true, that would have represented a predictable middle-ground compromise, given that NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw had been seeking 60.3 percent. An NFLPA source insisted, though, that the league's best offer never got to the 58-percent range.
Late Saturday night, Upshaw told ESPN's Chris Mortensen that the union did come down "a little" from the 60 percent cut of the revenue pie they were demanding. Earlier Upshaw denied that the owners had raised their ante by two points. Mortensen reports that the owners' last offer was 56.6 percent.
When informed late Saturday afternoon of the breakdown in talks, one frustrated owner resonded: "When we can't even agree on what the disagreements are on some issues, well, that just shows you how [messed] up the situation really is, right?"
Perhaps because of the paucity of leaks following the Friday talks, the Saturday negotiations began with a public sense of optimism, and a feeling that the weekend of bargaining would lead to an agreement by Sunday evening that would stave off the anticipated chaos which could now ensue. Fueling the speculation that the two sides were poised to reach an extension to the collective bargaining agreement was a memo that commissioner Paul Tagliabue dispatched to all 32 franchises, telling owners to set aside Tuesday as a possible date to ratify the labor deal.
But by Saturday at noon, one owner not involved in the negotiations but privy to their content, told ESPN.com that, if there had indeed been progress, "it's only if you use 'progress' as a relative term." That owner acknowledged he was "still dubious" a deal would be struck in advance of Sunday's deadline. Only a few hours later, his assessment turned into a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Even if there was movement in terms of how much of the total league revenues the NFL would share with its players, the two sides apparently never got close on the critical matters of revenue-sharing among the 32 franchises and the equally crucial issue of cash over cap. Some owners have long contended that their intramural battle over revenue sharing -- with an increasingly alarming disparity between high-revenue teams like the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys and low-revenue earners like the Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars -- should be out of bounds to the union. Upshaw argued all along, though, that the internal revenue sharing was tied to the league's problems.
As reported earlier this week by ESPN.com, there is a bloc of nine to 10 low-revenue franchises, very solid in their convictions, and prepared to veto any extension to the collective bargaining agreement that does not sufficiently address their own local needs. Owners of those teams view the internal revenue-sharing issue as critical to their financial viability in coming years.
But the low-revenue franchises aren't the only clubs currently opposed to a deal. The owner of one high-revenue franchise told ESPN.com on Saturday night that, counting teams at both ends of the spectrum, he projected that half of the 32 clubs would not endorse an extension to the collective bargaining agreement without further addressing revenue-sharing issues.
Asked if resuming negotiations on Sunday might break the impasse, that owner, who is actually in favor of moving ahead without a deal and seeing how the resultant system functions, said: "At this point, the gap is so wide, we could meet for a month of Sundays and not get anything done."
As Mortensen reported on Friday, the cash over cap component, which in many ways ties into the disparity between the league's "haves" and "have-nots" in terms of how money is calculated, also continues to divide NFL owners. Of course, the issue of cash over cap has always been a hot-button item for low-revenue franchises.
To comprehend the concept of cash over cap, one has to understand that the salary cap is just a bookkeeping number, one that can be massaged by amortizing signing bonuses, among other mechanisms. The cap has never been indicative of a team's payroll. The Redskin organization, believed to be the highest revenue-producing machine in the league, has had payrolls well over $100 million the last few seasons, even while the highest salary cap level ever was in 2005, at $85.5 million. The difference between a team's true payroll and its salary cap number is essentially what "cash over cap" means.
Sources said Saturday that, as part of the weekend discussions, the NFL proposed limiting the amount of cash over cap, per team, to 2 percent. While Upshaw has expressed concern in the past about cash over cap, he likely viewed the 2 percent limit as too low, and as potentially taking money away from players.
The day's events left teams and players not only frustrated, but concerned about what lies ahead.
General managers and cap experts for teams that are still over the projected spending limit of $94.5 million for 2006 were scrambling again on Saturday night to conjure up ways to get into compliance. It is believed that about 10 franchises on Saturday still had gap overages. Those teams face a Sunday 6 p.m. ET deadline for getting under the spending limit.
At the same time, some players who might have been released had the league year commenced on Friday as scheduled will likely face the chopping block again.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.