For the first time in two years, NFL front offices are putting on their salary caps as owners and players try to pound out a labor agreement.
That's why it's vital to forge an agreement that preserves the preseason. Both sides know the impact on the salary cap if revenues shrink. If all goes well, a deal may be reached in time to save the Pro Football Hall of Fame game and the rest of the preseason. Whatever the outcome of successful talks, the 2011 salary cap will be less than it was in 2009, when teams operated with $127 million of cap room.
The preseason is worth $22 to $25 million to each team. Figuring the cap could be as low as $117 million or as high as $125 million this year, everyone is working on a tight margin.
Just go back a week. According to multiple sources, owners came into a secret meeting in Minneapolis saying they had made a mistake on their revenue models. They said they had included the sales tax paid by personal seat license holders in their revenue projections, and that error should shrink projected NFL revenues from $9.6 billion to $9.2 billion. Players said, "All revenue is all revenue,'' meaning if the PSL holders wrote the checks, that money should still count as revenue.
With the guidance of mediator Arthur Boylan, both sides worked through the issues and came to a resolution on all revenue that carried into this week's meeting. What's left is figuring out the percentage. Players have asked for 50 percent of all revenue but would be willing to accept a lesser amount if they could sell the deal at 48 percent.
With a lower cap all but certain in a 2011 labor deal, some teams already are scrambling to figure out how to make their payrolls work. Some figure the 2011 cap will end up at $120 or $121 million. It could be as low as $117 million, depending on some of the benefits resolutions.
Owners are willing to set the minimum amount of money teams must spend in payroll close to the salary cap number. It's called the "guaranteed spend.'' Both sides are tweaking their formulas. One scenario going around, according to a source, is taking the cap to $125 million to free up more cap room but making the guaranteed spend 95 percent or a little less.
Those numbers could be changing by the hour.
But let's look at a few realities. If the cap is at $120 million, approximately seven teams are over the cap, and some of those teams have some interesting issues.
Dallas Cowboys -- The late Gene Upshaw used to say in times of labor trouble, no one protects his team's talent base better than Jerry Jones. Jones has always locked up his best players to give his team the best chance of winning. But the Cowboys are roughly $18.9 million over a $120 million cap, and they will have to make some player sacrifices. Cutting wide receiver Roy Williams, right tackle Marc Colombo and running back Marion Barber would be easy decisions, but not so fast. Their combined salaries are $12.259 million, but those three players have more than $27 million in signing bonus proration. They might create too much dead money against the cap to get under.
Oakland Raiders -- Depending on how much dead money is created by the voiding of Nnamdi Asomugha's contract, the Raiders are more than $10 million over the cap. They can save $2.1 million by cutting guard Cooper Carlisle, but they have only six players with salaries of more than $1 million that can be used to restructure contracts to free up cap room. Remember they gave extensions to defensive end Richard Seymour and defensive tackle John Henderson and made Kamerion Wimbley a franchise player.
New York Giants -- Even though the Giants are $11.34 million over a $120 million cap, they can save $7.5 million if they don't bring back offensive lineman Shawn Andrews. The Giants have plenty of contracts they can restructure, so getting under the cap won't be a problem. The difficulty might be not having too much free cap room for getting into free agency after re-signing key veterans such as Ahmad Bradshaw.
Pittsburgh Steelers -- The Steelers are $10.51 million over, but a $5 million savings comes from not bringing back tackle Flozell Adams. Defensive end Aaron Smith is in the final year of his contract and has a salary of $4.5 million. He might have to restructure his deal or be released. The Steelers have to make sure they have enough room to re-sign cornerback Ike Taylor.
Minnesota Vikings -- The Vikings are $5.148 million over, which will make it tough for them to keep Bernard Berrian. Releasing him would save around $3.7 million. Adrian Peterson is in the final year on his contract with a salary of $10.72 million. He wants a long-term deal, and if the Vikings accommodate it would free up a lot of cap room.
Indianapolis Colts -- The Colts are $2.77 million over. That's not the big problem. The problem is finding cap room. They have $35.5 million tied up in base salaries for Peyton Manning and Dwight Freeney. With Manning's $23 million franchise tag, the Colts have incentive to sign him to a contract extension and get some cap room. After those two players, though, the Colts have only eight other players with salaries above $2 million to consider for cap-friendly restructures or possible release.
Green Bay Packers -- The Packers really don't have a cap problem, particularly if they move linebacker Nick Barnett. Cutting or trading him saves the team about $4.4 million. They can save close to $4.5 million if right tackle Mark Tauscher doesn't come back. The Packers are $62,000 under the cap.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.