NFL owners chose the certainty of a salary cap over the prospect of life without one, and they're paying for it.
The league agreed to the union's proposal, including a revenue-sharing component that will cost owners nearly a billion dollars over the next six years.
The deal will carry the NFL's 32 franchises through the 2011 season. Two low-revenue teams, Buffalo and Cincinnati, cast the only votes against.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said $850 million to $900 million in players' salary will be added over the life of the deal because of the revenue-sharing component, which the union fought for throughout the on-again, off-again talks.
Now the league's free agency period, put off twice by protracted negotiations, will start either March 10 or March 11 to give teams additional time to get under the newly elevated salary cap.
The spending limit for teams will be $102 million this year, $7.5 million more than it would have been without a deal. The salary cap for the 2005-2006 season was $85.5 million.
The cap will increase to $109 million in 2007, which would have been an uncapped year that would have widened the spending gap between teams even more.
"We want teams to get additional money to re-sign players, rather than cutting them," Tagliabue said.
The deal was put together by nine teams who began on different sides of the revenue debate, including such high-revenue teams as New England and Dallas.
"We were willing to make some sacrifices to get this thing done," said Dallas owner Jerry Jones, the most vocal opponent of revenue sharing. "The proposal from the union was a mean mother."
Daniel Snyder of Washington, Jones' ally among the high-revenue teams, was more upbeat.
"It's really a win-win situation," he said.
Added Oakland's ailing Al Davis, a longtime maverick who was one of Tagliabue's leading supporters during this debate: "The whole idea was that no one was totally dissatisfied. We had to have labor peace. That's why I came all the way here. I don't make many of these trips anymore."
The agreement comes after a week of on-again, off-again negotiations, culminating in a two-day owners meeting. Tagliabue predicted it would come down to the 11th hour.
It did and perhaps went beyond: Tagliabue said an agreement was reached at 6:59 and 59 seconds CT, a second before the deadline to notify the union. League spokesman Greg Aiello originally announced the deal had taken place at 7:35 p.m. after league officials said earlier the 8 p.m. deadline didn't specify what time zone.
The union didn't seem to care.
"This agreement is not about one side winning or losing," Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL Players Association said in a statement. "Ultimately, it is about what is best for the players, the owners and the fans of the National Football League. As caretakers of the game we have acted in the manner the founders intended.
"Moving forward, this new agreement gives us the opportunity to continue our unprecedented success and growth."
The deal probably saved a lot of veteran players from being released for salary cap reasons. Even Brentson Buckner, a defensive tackle cut last week by Carolina, was upbeat.
"It's also good for the guys like me because now somebody has a little extra money and they can go after a veteran who might have gotten squeezed out in this," Buckner said. "I'm sure the veteran minimum is going to go up, so guys like me can go out and get a one-year somewhere and feel good about the situation they are going into."
The real debate was between the owners themselves on the important issue of expanded revenue sharing.
ow-income teams say high-revenue teams should contribute proportionately to the player pool because they can earn far more in nonfootball income from things such as advertising and local radio rights.
nder the new deal, the bottom 17 teams in revenue will not contribute to the pool, which will be funded with the top five teams contributing the most; the second five less; and the third five less than them.
Still, two of the lowest-revenue teams voted "no."
"I didn't understand it," said Buffalo's Ralph Wilson. "It is a very complicated issue and I didn't believe we should be rushing to vote in 45 minutes. I'm not a dropout ... or maybe I am. I didn't understand it."
That 45 minutes followed a series of daylong caucuses and finally came out of a fusion of plans that Tagliabue said was forged by nine teams.
One was proposed by the New York Jets and New England, a second by Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Then John Mara of the New York Giants, Pat Bowlen of Denver and Jerry Richardson of Carolina met with Tagliabue and put the ideas together.
Jones and Arthur Blank of Atlanta contributed a little more, and then Pittsburgh's Dan Rooney, whose brother Art helped on one of the plans, joined with Atlanta general manager Rich McKay for additional touches.