The NFL's 13 years of labor peace are over. Or so it seems after owners needed only 57 minutes Thursday to affirm their standoff with the players union.
The action left the salary cap at $94.5 million for Friday's start of free agency, meaning some players will have to be cut. That will cast more players onto the market, but leave little cap space to sign them -- many teams had assumed a labor agreement would be reached, giving them about $10 million more to spend.
That also will have an impact on the best players in the free-agent class, led by two running backs: NFL MVP Shaun Alexander of Seattle and Edgerrin James of Indianapolis. They will certainly find fewer buyers and less money available, although two of the teams with a lot of cap room are Minnesota and Arizona, who could certainly use them or Baltimore's Jamal Lewis, another running back.
The quick action by the owners -- who affirmed Wednesday's rejection by their Management Council of the union's last offer -- cast 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.
"The situation is about as dire as dire can be," commissioner Paul Tagliabue said after a meeting 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.
Agents and even some league officials held out hope for a last-minute agreement or an extension of the free-agent deadline. But, unlike earlier in the week when there seemed to be hope, there was only rhetoric.
"I won't come down," said Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, who is asking for 60 percent of league revenue for players, four percentage points more than the owners are offering. "The players know that. Only the owners can make a proposal."
That the situation seems so dire is unusual in that 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 won't be the only one to wait. So will many free agents.
In addition to Alexander, James and 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.