FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — The NFL players union advised its members to prepare for a lockout it expects to come in March, telling players to save their last three game checks this year in case there is no season in 2011.
In a letter to the players that was seen by the Associated Press, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said the union had an "internal deadline" for agreeing to a new collective bargaining agreement.
"That deadline has now passed," he wrote. "It is important that you protect yourself and your family."
The letter was dated Wednesday, and copies were on a table in the Patriots' locker room Saturday. After a reporter asked players about the letter, a Patriots spokesman flipped the copies facedown.
League spokesman Greg Aiello called the union's deadline "disappointing and inexplicable, especially for fans."
"We hope this does not mean the union has abandoned negotiating in favor of decertifying and litigating," he said. "We are ready to meet and negotiate any time and anywhere. But it takes sustained effort and shared commitment to reach an agreement. One side can't do it alone."
NFLPA spokesman George Atallah said on Twitter and via phone that the "internal deadline" relates to planning only and signifies no decision to abandon negotiating.
The sides met last month and said they made "some progress" on proposals involving an 18-game regular season and limiting offseason workouts.
The NFL has not missed games due to labor strife since 1987, when owners responded to a player strike by continuing the season with replacement players. But the prospect of a lost season in 2011 intensified when owners opted out of the collective bargaining agreement in 2008.
Smith has said he believes the owners opted out with the goal of locking the players out. The CBA expires March 3.
The one-page letter said the union expects the lockout March 4 and that players should work with advisers to prepare for an impending lack of income. And it said the league threatened to cancel players' health insurance.
Aiello said there would be no interruption of health care because the federal COBRA law allows employees to continue coverage at their own expense.
Jets' Leonhard on IR
NEW YORK — Jets safety Jim Leonhard went on season-ending injured reserve, a day after he broke his right leg in practice. A stabilizing rod was placed through Leonhard's tibia during surgery Friday night, and he is expected to make a full recovery.
Leonhard, 28, who calls defensive signals in the secondary and returns punts, was injured during team drills. He will be replaced by Eric Smith in the starting defense for Monday night's game at New England.
Cowboys: Rookie receiver Dez Bryant (back, left ankle) was probable for today's game at Indianapolis.
Vikings: More than a week after his firing, Brad Childress said his work in four-plus seasons as coach left the team in "a lot better shape" than when he was hired. And Childress told the St. Paul Pioneer Press he was caught off-guard by the firing — but not completely.
"I don't know if it's shocking," he said of the firing. "All you have to do is look around the league to know this happens. I didn't do everything perfectly, but I felt I coached my way. I left that job in a lot better shape than we were (in 2006)."
A 31-3 loss to the Packers in Week 11 was Childress' final game. Leslie Frazier has been the interim coach, and the Vikings beat the Redskins 17-13 in his debut.
In other Vikings news, running backs coach Eric Bieniemy, once a star running back at Colorado, is returning to his alma mater as offensive coordinator, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported. Bieniemy had interviewed for the head-coaching position with the Buffaloes, but the job went to former Redskins tight ends coach Jon Embree.