NFL owners got off to a slow start Wednesday in trying to beat a deadline and decide on accepting the union's proposal to extend the labor agreement.
"We're not even close to a consensus yet," said Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts.
That assessment came a day after commissioner Paul Tagliabue tried to build consensus with a speech to the owners, reminding them of the labor strife that culminated in strikes in 1982 and 1987.
But the good feeling that engendered seemed to wane as the owners discussed expanded revenue sharing. Irsay suggested they needed a consensus builder like the late Wellington Mara of the New York Giants, the last of the NFL's founding generation, who died last October.
"We need the ghost of St. Wellington to appear with some of the forefathers," he said.
The owners were operating under an 8 p.m. EST deadline to get a deal done before the start of free agency. Free agency, twice delayed, is scheduled to begin Thursday if owners turn down the union's offer. If they approve it, free agency will start Friday.
As the meeting broke up, most of the participants acknowledged there was a long way to go.
"I love my country and I love my league," said Oakland's Al Davis, the NFL's most consistent maverick for decades but now, according to those in the meeting, a strong Tagliabue supporter. "People who have been through this in the past want something good to come of it. What's good is another question."
The real debate is on the important issue of expanded revenue sharing, which has divided teams into "haves" and "have-nots."
Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, has insisted throughout more than a year of negotiations that this division must be resolved before agreement can be reached on a contract extension.
There are three plans on the table and each has different supporters and opponents. To get it done, 24 of the 32 teams will have to back one of them.
It is anything but certain that the owners will agree by the deadline to the union's proposal. There was doubt among many owners that any of the plans could get the three-quarters support to pass, according to those in the meetings.
If there is no agreement, it doesn't mean there will be a work stoppage -- at least not for the next two years.
But it would keep the salary cap at $94.5 million rather than as much as $10 million more. It would put a number of veterans on the street and it would also limit the amount available for other free agents. And it would lead to an uncapped year in 2007, which would allow some teams to spend almost at will and keep others from spending at all.
The revenue debate involves low-income teams such as Buffalo, Cincinnati and Indianapolis who say high-revenue teams -- Dallas, Washington and Philadelphia, for instance -- should contribute proportionately to the player pool because they can earn far more in nonfootball 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.
It's difficult to anticipate how the vote may go, especially with the negotiations that have had daily twists and turns. But Jerry Jones, one of the leaders of the high-revenue teams, indicated even before the meeting that his viewpoint might lose.
"We want to play football," Jones said. "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."
Later, Jones said: "We've had a good dialogue. Very productive."
Beyond that, some of the higher-revenue teams that entered the meeting undecided have owners who have traditionally been those who regularly sacrifice for the good of the league.
They include the Denver Broncos, owned by Pat Bowlen, and the New York Giants, run by John Mara, son of the late Wellington Mara, who more than 40 years ago was one of three major-market owners who agreed to share television money. The senior Mara was elected to the Hall of Fame in part because of that decision.
Another fence-sitter is the New York Jets. Traditionally, the Jets have followed the Giants' lead, although that happened more often when Leon Hess, a close friend of Wellington Mara's, owned the team. The current Jets owner is Woody Johnson.
In any event, Tuesday's meeting appeared amicable.
"We haven't punched anyone yet," Rooney said.