ATLANTA The NFL and its players' union are on the clock. As it counts down, the games will go on.
To nobody's surprise, owners voted unanimously Tuesday to end their labor agreement with the union in 2011, opting out of a deal that could have gone through 2013.
"All this means is that we will have football now until 2010 and not until 2012," Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL Players Association said during a conference call. "We will move ahead."
Both Upshaw and commissioner Roger Goodell were reasonably optimistic that an agreement could be reached before the start of the 2010 free-agent season, presumably in March of that year. If there is none, that would be the first season without a salary cap since the year after the 1993 labor contract was signed, ending more than a half-decade without labor strife.
Upshaw suggested that once the cap went away, the union would never let one back. Goodell suggested that might be rhetoric that the owners weren't worried about playing without a cap and that some system would be put in place that could work.
Goodell, who as Paul Tagliabue's top aide, was instrumental in helping get the owners to ratify the current deal, noted what other league officials have said that changing economic times and rising stadium costs have caused problems for owners. He acknowledged the league wasn't having dire financial problems, only that teams were making less money and the pendulum in the contract had swung toward the players.
"We all were making an effort to try to keep labor peace," he said of the 2006 agreement. "We reached an agreement that we knew was going to be pushing the envelope. After two years of living within that system, we recognize that it doesn't work long term for us. That's the way it goes."
Reaction varied and both players and owners seemed optimistic that there would be no work stoppage.
"A lot can happen in three years," said Dallas owner Jerry Jones, whose new stadium will open next year and host the Super Bowl after the 2010 season.
Players also preferred not to think about a work stoppage. Upshaw has said the union won't strike but owners could lock out players if there is no agreement.
"It's obviously a legitimate concern, but three years is a long time," Denver cornerback Dominique Foxworth said. "Hopefully we can get something done. The most important thing there is nobody who benefits from not having a season, so I think in that time we'll find a way, between the players union and the league, to make it happen."
"Our league has been very prosperous, so any time you're talking about anything that could effect labor, it is a big deal," said Houston kicker Kris Brown, the Texans' union representative. "It's not like the threat of losing a season is imminent, because that's not the case. We're talking about this now but one year from now, two years from now we could come to an agreement and have an extension and all this is for nothing."
There are, in fact, incentives to prevent even an uncapped season.
There are suggestions that the richer teams such as Washington and Dallas would spend millions on top free agents and build all-star teams.
On the other hand, the contract extends the length of time for free agency in an uncapped year from four years to six and allows teams to protect one extra player with franchise or transition tags. In addition, the two-year lag would allow many teams to extend the contracts of their most important players, maintaining the continuity that is important to winning teams.
In the statement announcing the opt out, the owners noted they are paying $4.5 billion to players this year, just under 60 percent of their total revenues as specified in the 2006 agreement. League revenues are estimated at about $8.5 billion, although none of the teams except the publicly owned Green Bay Packers discloses figures.
The owners also want a change in the system to distribute the money more to veterans than to unproven rookies. Their argument is based on a disparity in salaries that leaves them spending far more on newcomers than on dependable veterans.
For example, offensive tackle Jake Long, taken first in the NFL draft last month, got $30 million guaranteed before playing an NFL game. David Diehl, a fifth-round pick in 2003 who has started every game of his career and played left tackle for the New York Giants in their Super Bowl victory, signed a six-year $31 million extension with less than half of that guaranteed.
But Upshaw, who opposes cutting rookie salaries, contended those huge figures go only to the top ten draft picks. And he said the big money that goes to the high picks are used as standards when veterans renegotiate contracts.
Upshaw made his argument in a half-hour conference call that ended a few minutes before Goodell made his in a news conference.
The debate will continue in negotiations and through the media over a course of months and years. Both conceded there might be no agreement until the deadline, which Upshaw suggested might not happen until the winter of 2010. So did Goodell.
"We'd like to get things done," Goodell said. "But often it's not until you have a deadline that people realize the consequences of not reaching a deal."Upshaw added: "March of 2010 that's what we see as the realistic deadline. I'm not going to sell the players on a cap again. Once we go through the cap, why should we agree to it again?"
AP Sports Writer Kristie Rieken in Houston and AP freelance writer Mike Kelly in Denver contributed to this story.