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Model status at stake in NFL talks

It's not easy being an NFL fan these days. Not only are there no games to watch, but lately, keeping up with league issues seems to require an economics degree.

Free agency.

Revenue sharing.

Uncapped year.

Those were the buzzwords last week at the NFL combine in Indianapolis, where the worried expressions were not on the potential draft picks but the nervous NFL executives. Ownership and the players union have three more days to extend the collective-bargaining agreement or risk destroying the framework that made the NFL the model pro sports league.

No CBA, no salary cap.

No CBA, no parity.

No CBA, no labor peace.

Reportedly, the sides were close Monday. According to ESPN.com, league owners are scheduled to meet today via conference call to discuss the status of negotiations.

They have until midnight Thursday, which marks the start of the NFL's 2006 calendar year and of free agency. Though an accord can be reached after that, insiders deem it unlikely.

So, they're trying awfully hard.

Otherwise, the NFL is on its way to becoming Major League Baseball.

"The fact that we have labor peace creates certainty in fans' minds that games will be played," agent Leigh Steinberg said. "It allowed the NFL to catapult to the No. 1 attraction in the United States and has ushered in an era of unparalleled prosperity. If we pull the genie out of the bottle, I don't know that it ever comes back."

Meanwhile, what a mess.

The current CBA is set to expire after the 2007 season and calls for the final year to be uncapped, as in no salary cap. According to NFL Players Association executive director Gene Upshaw, if the calendar flips to 2006, moving players one year closer to unlimited earning potential, it will be hard to reverse.

For more than a decade, the NFL has enjoyed steadily increasing revenues and avoided labor strife because of the CBA, which put a cap system in place in 1993. Each team receives an equal share of the league's revenue pie and spends the same amount each season on player payroll, known as the salary cap figure.

In 2005, the cap was $85.5-million.

The CBA has been extended three times with little more than the standard gnashing of teeth. Each time, the agreement called for the final year to be uncapped, which acted as incentive for an extension. This time, negotiations hit a snag.

Well, two snags.

The first came within ownership, where there are differing opinions on how revenue should be divided. A small but powerful number whose teams are most prosperous - think Cowboys owner Jerry Jones - would like to keep more for themselves, which would threaten the welfare of small-market teams such as Green Bay.

The second snag stems from the first, between ownership and the players union. Upshaw was reluctant to agree to the percentage of revenue to be devoted to player payroll until the owners resolve their revenue-sharing issue.

The CBA reached a crisis point two years from the expiration date because the minds that crafted the CBA put safeguards in place to ensure its survival. Moving forward without an extension will be, at best, difficult and, at worst, chaos.

The hope is that the increased pressure of an approaching deadline produces an agreement.

If not, many of the tricks teams use to manipulate the salary cap no longer will be available, including the long-term amortization of big-money signing bonuses and the ability to structure backloaded contracts. Moving from the final capped year in 2006 to an uncapped 2007, a player's base salary can increase no more than 30 percent.

Many teams will be forced to cut players or restructure contracts to comply with the 2006 salary cap by the 3:59 p.m. Thursday deadline.

General manager Bruce Allen said the Bucs' salary cap situation is among the league's 10 worst, with an estimated $19-million to trim by the close of business Thursday. To sign free agents, Tampa Bay must slash even more from its payroll.

It can be done, but Allen would prefer not.

He'll know within three days.

- Times staff writer Stephen F. Holder contributed to this report.

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