The NFL's stalled labor negotiations have created an uncomfortable backdrop for the scouting combine.
Players are still being measured, timed, tested and evaluated with the usual zest at the RCA Dome. But preparations for the April draft and the start of the free-agent signing period on Friday have been mixed with concern about the lack of a labor contract extension. The agreement between the owners and the players does not expire until after the 2007 season. Without a new deal, however, the 2006 season will be the final season played under a salary cap.
Gene Upshaw, the union chief, left Indianapolis on Friday without any progress being made in negotiations. If the league were to play the 2007 season without a cap, a lockout could follow. The NFL has not had a work stoppage since 1987.
"The fact that we have labor peace does one amazing thing," Leigh Steinberg, one of the NFL's most prominent agents, said Friday. "It creates certainty in fans' minds that games will be played, and it has allowed the NFL to catapult to the No. 1 entertainment attraction in the United States. And it has ushered in an era of unparalleled prosperity for everyone involved.
"If we pull the genie out of that bottle, I don't know that it ever comes back," Steinberg added. "If we get to that uncapped year, and we get all sorts of proud men with their backs against the wall, I don't think we ever get back to where we are now. So I hope that doesn't happen."
One issue that has complicated labor negotiations is a division among owners regarding revenue sharing. Eight of the league's 32 teams -- Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Houston, New England, Philadelphia and Washington -- reportedly generate far more revenue than the other 24 teams. Those eight teams feel they should not be forced to share locally generated revenue from luxury boxes, naming rights, satellite radio, local radio and other sources.
"I think there has been a mischaracterization that large-market teams are not in favor or supportive of revenue sharing," Bob McNair, the owner of the Houston Texans, said Thursday during a conference call. "There's really not any opposition to revenue sharing as such, nor is there any opposition to helping small-market clubs that might need help.
"Where the separation comes is when you start talking about revenue sharing that goes beyond that," McNair added. "I think everyone in the league wants all the clubs to be competitive. When it goes beyond any requirement to be competitive, and it's just a redistribution of profits, that's a different issue."
Players and owners remain far apart on other key issues. Some players believe that too many conditions are being attached to signing bonuses, giving owners unfair leeway to void the bonuses.
"In the old days, a signing bonus was a signing bonus," Steinberg said. "Today, a signing bonus is modified in many contracts for everything from testing positive for drugs, to contract holdouts, leaving camp, conduct detrimental, and adverse public statements."
Some of the more prominent free agents, like Shaun Alexander and Edgerrin James, may not find as many suitors as they anticipated. Arizona, Minnesota, Green Bay, Cleveland and San Diego are significantly under the cap. By contrast, Oakland, Kansas City, Washington and Denver are significantly over the cap, and will have to restructure contracts or cut players by Friday.
In approaching this off-season, team executives have drawn up two game plans -- one with a new deal in place and one without. But the uncertainty has been frustrating.
"It's not a comfortable feeling right now, I would imagine, for any club," Tom Coughlin, the New York Giants' coach, said here Friday. "You really can't get any answers to any of the financial questions you're dealing with. We need to get this thing settled and move forward as a league."
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