The NFL players union is instructing agents to negotiate contracts as if no new labor deal will be in place during free agency.
Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, finished talks in Indianapolis Feb. 24 without an extension to the collective bargaining agreement and sounded pessimistic that a contract can be reached before the March 3 start of the league calendar. If that is the case, he said, it could take a while.
"Once we get to the league year, I don't see us getting a deal done any time soon," Upshaw said in the meeting. "We're taking the position we're not going to get this resolved, so you should go ahead and do contracts based on that."
Upshaw was in Indianapolis for the annual NFL Scouting Combine and had met with owners over the past couple of days. He cut short a negotiating session Feb. 22, saying the meeting had descended into a repetition of points by members on both sides of the table.
That fueled Upshaw's skepticism, which had not subsided by Feb. 24, the first day of workouts for prospective rookies.
Upshaw even took the unusual step of inviting the media to listen to his remarks at a large meeting of agents. He spoke for about 10 to 15 minutes two days after meeting with a smaller group of agents.
If a new deal is not reached between the NFLPA and league officials before March 3, teams would have to contend with a much different landscape with contracts. That's because even though the collective bargaining agreement doesn't expire until after the 2007 season, next year would be uncapped.
If that happens, new deals could be prorated only over four years rather than seven and salaries could only increase by 30 percent per season. Players also face the loss of benefits, if there is no accord.
Upshaw has insisted the biggest obstacle to a deal is discord among the owners, not NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Owners have not been able to reach consensus on a new revenue sharing plan, something that the union contends must be resolved before any new collective bargaining agreement could be signed.
Upshaw also has said he would decertify the union and suggested if the deal runs out, he did not believe players would agree to a salary cap in the future once there is an uncapped season.
The uncertainty has forced team officials to devise contingency plans for offseason moves. Even as workouts were beginning, many team officials were projecting two different scenarios: doing new contracts with a new labor agreement or proceeding without one.
Restricted free agents must receive tenders by March 2. Free agency is scheduled to open March 3.
"Let's get this thing settled so we can make concrete plans about how we're going to move forward," New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin said. "It's not a comfortable feeling for any club. We need this to be settled and we need to move forward as a league. We need to be able to utilize all the abilities that we have in our planning."
Upshaw all but ruled out any immediate possibility of having a deal before March 3.
"Unless something is going on ... that I've not seen in the last day or two, we're just not there yet," he said. "I'm not putting a lot of faith in that we're going to reach agreement in the next couple of days."