Before they head to Detroit for the Super Bowl festivities, league owners will stop at Disney this week for the latest briefing on a matter of more than just Mickey Mouse significance.
At a Thursday session in Orlando, commissioner Paul Tagliabue is scheduled to update owners on the progress, or perhaps more accurately, the lack of progress, on the proposed extension to the collective bargaining agreement. The message to be delivered in Orlando might be nearly as chilling as the frigid forecasts for Detroit next week.
"Sometimes it seems we're taking two steps forward and one step back," Tagliabue told a small contingent of reporters just before the AFC championship game Sunday.
The issues, of course, remain the same. While the focus on the field prepares to turn to Motown, where Super Bowl XL will be contested on Feb. 5, the problems away from it remain of the mo'-money variety.
The players, who recently rebuffed a new proposal from the league, want a bigger share of NFL revenues. And internally, owners have yet to reach a middle ground on how to more equitably distribute the total income in a league in which the disparity between the high revenue teams and the smaller-market franchises has dramatically increased in the last five years or so.
There might be more urgency displayed in Orlando Thursday, but that doesn't mean there will be any meaningful movement.
Rumors have been that Tagliabue is poised to move forward with the labor accord, even if it means delaying an internal agreement on revenue sharing among his constituents, but several owners said privately this week they prefer their internecine issues be resolved before they engage NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw again. The fear among the smaller-revenue teams remains that clubs such as the Washington Redskins, who are paying their offensive and defensive coordinators more than several franchises are paying their head coaches, have gained too big a spending edge.
Under threat of league sanctions, some owners are reluctant to discuss the internal revenue sharing issues on the record, but it is clear there is concern over the lingering inertia. The consensus had been that an extension of the labor agreement, which expires after the 2007 season, would be in place months ago and that revenue sharing might be a stickier issue.
It seems, however, like a resolution isn't close on either front.
"Some of the old 'one-for-all-and-all-for-one' philosophy is disappearing," said one AFC owner this week. "No disrespect intended, but guys like Art Rooney and Wellington Mara must be spinning in their graves, right? I think Paul's assessment is right, in that we seem to move forward a little bit and then retreat. Certainly [progress] seems incremental right now. We've got free agency coming up soon, the draft, and it seems like it will take a miracle to get [a collective bargaining agreement] before those things. And that makes it all a little frightening. I mean, the clocking is ticking, and pretty loudly."
Indeed, the new league year commences March 1, and free agency begins just two days after that. Without an extension to the CBA, the 2007 season will become a so-called uncapped year, meaning teams will be able to prorate signing bonuses over just four years, the smallest term ever. That will make free agent contracts, along with deals for first-round draft choices, much more difficult to negotiate.
Right now, finding a compromise on both the revenue-sharing and CBA issues has been a difficult road to navigate.
Some club officials said last week they feel the league and the management council will soon come up with a revenue sharing plan they'll try to just jam down owners' throats. But don't count on that happening, especially in a league that requires a three-quarters vote of the membership to enact major legislation. As for the extension to the labor pact, Upshaw has repeatedly warned that once the salary cap genie is out of the bottle, there will never be a cap again, and that is worrisome.
"There's not going to be a deal," said Upshaw, "just for the sake of doing a deal. We know what the [financial] numbers are, and we know how much the unshared revenues have [escalated], and it's a matter that has to be addressed."
Owners have all but agreed to share all revenues, not just what was known in the past as designated gross revenues, with players. How much to share, though, is in question. In the latest offer, the NFL apparently raised the revenues it would share with its rank and file from the 57 percent it had been proposing by a few points, but Upshaw is believed to be seeking 65 percent of the revenues.
On one hand, there is a perception that cooler heads will prevail, and that Tagliabue and Upshaw, who enjoy a close relationship, will find a way to strike a deal. That said, there is a fear that some stances will become more intransigent in coming months, as the NFL grows closer to a potential uncapped season. The concern is that players see a season with no ceiling as one in which some owners will spend injudiciously in their pursuit of a Super Bowl championship.
There are some drawbacks, though, for players in an uncapped season. For openers, while there would be no limit on spending, neither would there be a minimum cap charge all teams would have to meet. So some owners might actually spend less than they are forced to currently lay out in player-related costs. Players might also be responsible for their own fringe benefits, such as health insurance. And to gain unrestricted free agency, a player would need to have six seasons accrued toward the league pension plan, not the four years currently required.
So it would seem there is sufficient motivation for all parties to reach a deal. That said, owners are more likely to depart Orlando on Thursday evening wearing mouse ears than smiles, because a resolution still seems months away, at best.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.