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Deadline extended as labor talks continue

NEW YORK (March 5, 2006) -- Talks continued Sunday between the NFL and its players union amid indications they were close to a deal that would avert the mass dumping of veterans.

The negotiations, which had broken off Saturday, resumed when Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, flew back to New York after returning home to Washington. Reports from inside the bargaining room pointed to progress being made a day after things seemed bleak.

One indication that a deal might be near was a decision by the league to move the deadline for trimming rosters and getting under the salary cap from 6 p.m. ET Sunday to 10 p.m.

If there was no deal, the cap was to be set at $94.5 million. But a deal could increase it significantly, allowing teams to keep players they otherwise would have been forced to cut.

Free agency is scheduled to begin at 12:01 a.m. Monday, but could be delayed if agreement is reached.

These negotiations were by far the most difficult since the NFL and the NFL Players Association first agreed to free agency and a salary cap in 1992, ending years of labor unrest that included player strikes in 1982 and 1987. The contract has been extended several times since then, most of the time with ease.

But this time, the players asked for a change in the system.

Until now, they got their money primarily from television and ticket revenues. This time, they requested their share from all team revenues, including outside money generated by everything from parking to stadium naming rights.

That led to difficult negotiations, in part because the teams themselves are having their own dispute over that money because of the disparity in outside money made by low-revenue and high-revenue teams. Union leaders had suggested that it would be hard to reach agreement on a labor contract until the owners settled their own differences.

But in the end, they seemed ready to compromise, largely because of the pressure of impending free agency, which was supposed to begin March 3 but was put off for three days so the sides could continue talking. In fact, the talks seemed to be at a standstill on March 2, when the owners took just 57 minutes to reject the union's last offer.

But seven hours later, the sides reversed course, agreeing to extend the free-agent deadline for three days so they could continue bargaining. That came as teams who had planned for a larger salary cap were preparing to cut large numbers of veterans, including many aging Pro Bowlers.

"Many of those players would have been cut anyway," Upshaw said, noting that veterans are cut every year but find jobs with other teams. This year, however, the extra cuts could glut the market, causing players to get less money even if they find jobs.

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