A few hours after NFL owners voted to continue their standoff with the players union, the league extended its deadline for free agency by three days, putting off what threatened to become a mass purge of high-priced players from rosters.
League vice president Joe Browne announced the delay Thursday afternoon, seven hours before the midnight deadline.
The owners' vote after a 57-minute meeting earlier in the day had seemed to end 13 years of labor peace between the league and its union.
Browne did not elaborate on the deadline delay, which gives the union 72 more hours to negotiate a contract extension to the labor agreement that could add about $10 million to the current salary cap of $94.5 million. Many teams spent the day scrambling to get under that figure, and a number of big-name players were expected to be cut.
Free agency will now start at 12:01 a.m. EST Monday instead of Friday.
That move puts off free agency for a class led by two running backs: NFL MVP Shaun Alexander of Seattle and Edgerrin James of Indianapolis. If other players were to be cut because of the salary cap and hit the market, free agents would find fewer buyers and less money available.
The extension came seven hours after commissioner Paul Tagliabue had announced "the situation is as dire as dire can be."
There was a pall around the league as general managers struggled to find cap room and agents tried to figure out how to sell clients in a market with less money and a potential glut of players.
In fact, the owners' meeting was so short that a lot of people who expected a 12-hour session arrived after most of the owners had departed the New York hotel where they met, braving a mix of ice and snow to try to get home quickly. It was thought at the time to be a strange rubber stamp by owners who had flown to New York from around the country.
The extension rekindled hope amid the rhetoric.
"I won't come down," Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, said when hearing of the owners' morning action. "The players know that. Only the owners can make a proposal."
Upshaw and the union are asking for 60 percent of league revenue for players, four percentage points more than the owners are offering.
There are two years left on the labor agreement first signed in 1993 and extended continually before the deadline.
But unless there is an agreement, there will be no salary cap in 2007, which could create big-spending "haves" and low-revenue "have-nots," a situation that has prevailed in other sports such as baseball. That also has traps for teams and players: a player would be eligible for free agency only after six years instead of the current four; there would be no salary minimum, and annual raises would be limited to 30 percent.
That is complicated by an internal dispute over revenue sharing between big- and small-money teams, a battle that has accelerated as outside revenue has increased from sources from stadium naming rights to local radio. That money is expected to be included in the new labor contract for the first time.
Upshaw contends that internal dispute should be settled before the labor agreement is reached, but the owners didn't even discuss it Thursday.
"Sure we should discuss it," said Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson, one of the have-nots. "But we didn't."
The ramifications for this year go beyond free agency. Cap problems will make it hard for teams to sign their draft picks, especially the high ones.
"We can always find creative ways to do things," said Leigh Steinberg, the agent for Southern California quarterback Matt Leinart, expected to be chosen no later than third in the draft.
"But I hope by draft time we will be beyond that. As teams peer into the abyss, as they peer into the apocalypse, sanity will return. When the NFLPA and management truly recognize the nature of no agreement, their intelligence and rationality will force them into making a deal."
Leinart wouldn't be the only one to wait. So will many free agents.
In addition to Alexander, James and Baltimore running back Jamal Lewis, among the most desirable players on the market include San Francisco linebackers Julian Peterson and Andre Carter; wide receivers Antwaan Randle El of Pittsburgh and David Givens of New England; cornerbacks Charles Woodson of Oakland and Ty Law, a Pro Bowler with the Jets last season, and linebacker Will Witherspoon of Carolina.
Then there is quarterback Drew Brees of San Diego, although his value went down when he injured his throwing shoulder in the final game of 2005.
One star was guaranteed free agency in 2007 when Tennessee paid $1 million to quarterback Steve McNair, voiding the final three years of a contract that would have kept him with the Titans until 2009. McNair will still count for a whopping $23.5 million against the salary cap due to previous bonuses in his contract.