What is supposed to be the absolutely, positively final meeting to solve the NFL's labor problems began with owners trying to decide whether to accept the union's latest proposal.
A decision on whether to extend the collective bargaining agreement was unlikely to come down until March 8, close to the latest deadline of 8 p.m. ET. It'll take that long for the owners to resolve their differences over internal revenue sharing, the most divisive issue facing them. If they don't get that straight, a deal is unlikely.
Much of the early hours of the meeting was spent simply listening to commissioner Paul Tagliabue go through details of the union's proposal. Then Tagliabue outlined revenue sharing, but there was no discussion before the owners broke for dinner.
"We haven't punched anybody yet," said Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney, who described Tagliabue's remarks as "Excellent. Super."
"He described how the owners and players should be in this together for the good of the league," added Rooney, who has helped to solve past labor disputes.
League spokesman Joe Browne said Tagliabue had agreed with Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, that the owners would have a decision no later than 8 p.m. ET on March 8. That would come as the union, which is meeting in Hawaii, holds its executive board session.
There seemed to be some hope they would reach an agreement that would extend the contract that runs out after the 2007 season. It came from Dallas owner Jerry Jones, who is 180 degrees away from Wilson on sharing, but suggested for the first time that he might have to give in a bit to let the owners solve their dispute.
"We want to play football," Jones said as he entered the meeting. "We have an obligation to everyone, particularly our fans.
"My gut is we're going to come up with something, but it's still up in the air. It's going to be long and drawn out and tough."
Finding a solution now is critical because free agency, pushed back twice, is scheduled to start March 9 with a $94.5 million salary cap that could go as much as $10 million higher if there is an extension. And although both sides have agreed there will be no more extensions there would be one more if there is an agreement -- until 12:01 a.m. on March 10 to give teams time to get everything in order.
If there is no settlement, then 2007 would have no salary cap and create the kind of uncertainty that neither side really wants.
Revenue sharing hasn't been dealt with during the negotiations, even though Upshaw has contended all along that no agreement can be reached without it.
If nothing else, the tone of the owners was far different at this meeting than March 2 in New York, when they took only 57 minutes to reject the union proposal. Later that day, they extended the deadline for free agency for three days and extended again March 5 just as it seemed talks had broken off.
That led to this meeting and the discussion over revenue sharing, which will be necessary to meet the union's proposal for slightly under 60 percent of the league's total revenues.
Low-revenue teams such as Buffalo, Cincinnati and Indianapolis say high-revenue teams -- Dallas, Washington and Philadelphia, for instance -- should contribute proportionately to the player pool because they can earn far more in non-football income such as advertising and local radio rights. Those high-revenue teams might contribute only 10 percent of their outside money compared with 50 percent or more for low-revenue teams.
If there is no agreement, it would leave a number of free agents commanding far less than they thought they could get and a glutted market filled with veterans who could be cut to provide cap room.