Somebody blinked: CBA talks go into overtime

It ain't over until it's over. And it was over … until it wasn't. The Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations between the NFL and its Players Association have gone into overtime.

Sometime between this morning, when the NFL announced that the owners had voted unanimously to break off talks with the NFLPA, and about 5 o'clock this evening, when the NFL announced that the free agency period would be delayed for three days in order for further talks with the NFLPA to take place, something happened.

Somebody blinked.

Earlier in the day, it appeared that virtually everyone involved was standing at the door of his own personal hell and was willing to walk through that door and into the teeth of whatever was awaiting them. For some – for teams like the Redskins, for example – it was cap hell. For the players, it was the certainty of a bloodbath of veterans getting cut and replaced by minimum-wage rookies and the uncertainty of a free-agent market skewed by rules designed as poison pills to prevent things from ever getting to that point.

For other owners, the so-called small-market teams, it was the prospect of a 2007 season without a salary cap, knowing that they wouldn't possibly be able to keep up with the teams with deeper pockets.

For NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, it was facing going into retirement in a few years with the legacy of leaving with scorched earth behind him. And Gene Upshaw, while he has managed labor peace well, is looking at again stepping into an arena where he's not been very successful. He's 0-2 in games of brinksmanship with the NFL owners as his union was routed in both league players strikes in 1982 and 1987.

So, standing at the precipice, somebody got a bit wobbly. The brave talk, the unanimous votes, the "we'll play it out and see what happens" rhetoric of earlier in the day and the week suddenly rang hallow in somebody's mind. It was all false bravado. That somebody said, ‘I can't possibly be this dumb, can I? I can't let this happen.'

And he blinked.

Then he went to the phone and calls were made and all of a sudden things that appeared to be etched in stone in the morning suddenly transformed into mere lines in the sand. The start of free agency was delayed even though both sides were adamant that it would not be just a couple of days ago.

Just a few hours after NFL owners voted to continue the standoff with the players union, the league extended its deadline for free agency by three days, putting off what threatened to become a mass purge of high-priced players from rosters around the league. The 49ers, who are approximately $19.9 million under the new cap figure of $94.5 million, will not have to release any veterans who have 2006 contracts with or without a new CBA.

NFL vice president Joe Browne announced the delay late Thursday afternoon, seven hours before the midnight deadline for the originally-scheduled free-agency period to begin. The new deadline is Monday at 12:01 a.m. (EST).

The owners' vote after a 57-minute meeting earlier in the day had seemed to end 13 years of labor peace between the league and its union.

For both sides to have agreed to the delay, someone must have put a magic number out there, one that was, at the very least, good enough to the other side to jump-start talks that were as dead as dead could be.

That magic number must have represented enough movement for the other side to say, "Hey, I didn't really want to go through that door anyway. Couldn't hurt to sit down and talk a few more days, could it? Because I'm not really sure what I was going to do tomorrow when all the stuff hit the fan, anyway."

So the millionaire players and the billionaire owners will take another three days – or maybe longer, who knows – to try to decide how to split up this huge pile of money that the NFL is guaranteed to earn as long as it plays games.

And either somebody will blink one last time and a deal will be done or all the parties involved will return to the gates of their personal versions of hell and pass through them.

Rich Tandler is editor-in-chief of WarpathInsiders.com


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