NFL owners will try to find labor peace before the start of free agency, hoping to avoid the mass dumping of veterans for salary-cap reasons.
The owners will meet in New York, seeking to find a way toward an agreement with the players union that could add $10 million to $15 million to a 2006 salary cap that current is projected at about $95 million. Without it, some teams could be forced into wholesale cuts to get beneath the cap by midnight. Free agency will starts March 3.
Three days of talks between the league and the NFL Players Association to extend the agreement that runs out in 2008 ended Feb. 28 with the sides far apart on the percentage of league revenues earmarked for its players. Gene Upshaw, the union's executive director, said the league is offering to 56.2 percent of its total revenue for the players, almost four points lower than the union's.
"Our number has to start with a six," Upshaw said.
But beyond the numbers is an issue that has divided the owners for two years -- revenue sharing among the teams.
Under the current system, some teams make far more than others in ancillary income, ranging from local radio rights to stadium naming rights and advertising. The lower revenue teams say that forces them to commit as much as 70 percent of that money to the players while teams with more outside money contribute far less, giving the high-revenue teams more available cash for upfront bonuses to free agents.
The NFL said in a statement after talks broke off that revenue sharing won't be discussed at the March 2 meeting.
Still, it is bound to come up during a meeting that on the surface is considered a strategy session to determine the owners' next move. Labor negotiations often have a way of being moved forward by deadlines, and revenue sharing is considered a critical part of the formula.
Under the current agreement, 2006 is scheduled to be the last year with a salary cap. An uncapped year in 2007 means new rules that will force teams and agents to change their plans this year and could keep a lot of teams out of the free-agent market entirely.
"It might mean that no rookies get signed because no one is sure of the long-term ramifications," said Tom Condon, the agent for a number of the game's top players.
Even more urgent are salary-cap ramifications for many teams, which anticipated a labor agreement and planned for a much bigger ceiling. Washington, for example, could be as much as $25 million after signings over the past few years that anticipated a salary cap figure well over $100 million.
Others seem ready for whatever happens.
"We're in pretty good shape," New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi said. "They're going to give us a cap number and we'll be ready for it. You always prepare for a worst case, no matter what the situation. You never want to be surprised by something negative, only something positive."
Accorsi said he's also not worried about new rules. He said those contingencies are covered in the contracts of two young Pro Bowl players -- tight end Jeremy Shockey and defensive end Osi Umenyiora -- that the Giants extended last fall.
But others are in a different situation, which could mean wholesale cuts of big-name players at midnight March 2. What happens in the meetings might determine that.