League vice president Joe Browne announced the delay Thursday afternoon, seven hours before the midnight deadline.
The owners' vote Thursday morning after a 57-minute meeting to reject the latest union proposal seemed to end 13 years of labor peace between the league and its union. But, upon further review, the league and union agreed to delay the start of free agency, which was scheduled to begin at midnight tonight.
"The NFL and the NFL Players Association have agreed to extend the start of the 2006 league year for 72 hours - until 12:01 a.m. ET, Monday, March 6 - in order to provide time to resume negotiations," the league said in a statement. "The league year had been set to begin at 12:01 a.m. ET on Friday, March 3."
A high-level source with one NFL team told ESPN.com the league has informed teams that any player placed on waivers during this period of uncertainty can be recalled from waivers until there is more clarity about the pending free-agency period.
The major sticking point in negotiations for the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is revenue sharing. The union is asking for 60 percent of the league's total revenues go to the players, the NFL is offering 56.2 percent. Neither side seems poised to budge at this point, but that could change over the weekend.
"The situation is about as dire as dire can be," commissioner Paul Tagliabue said after owners and team officials raced for flights that had taken them thousands of miles to New York for the meeting.
Packers president Bob Harlan and executive vice president and chief operating officer John Jones represented the Packers at the meeting today.
The negotiations are further complicated by an internal dispute over revenue sharing between owners of small-market and large-market owners. The battle has accelerated as outside revenue has increased from sources from stadium naming rights to local radio. That money is expected to be included in the new labor contract for the first time, according to reports.
Union leader Gene Upshaw contends that internal dispute should be settled before the labor agreement is reached, but the owners didn't even discuss it Thursday.
"Sure we should discuss it," said Buffalo owner Ralph Wilson, one of the have-nots. "But we didn't."
The current CBA runs through the 2007 season, which will be an uncapped year. If there is no agreement by the new deadline, it could create big-spending "haves" and low-revenue "have-nots," a situation that has prevailed in other sports such as baseball. That also has traps for teams and players: a player would be eligible for free agency only after six years instead of the current four; there would be no salary minimum, and annual raises would be limited to 30 percent.
The Green Bay Packers are one of four teams with more than $20 million under the projected 2006 salary cap of about $95 million. While the Packers will have plenty of money to spend on free agents this season, as an organization in the smallest market in all of sports, they will feel the pinch of trying to compete if there is an uncapped season in 2007.
"Everybody would be hurt if we basically accepted the situation as it has been offered and as it would be today," said Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
The three-day respite has given a lot of club officials a little relief.
"Whatever the rules are, we'll follow them," said Tennessee general manager Floyd Reese, who spent the last three days trying to cut an estimated $18 million from the team's payroll. "I personally think it's healthier for the league to have a cap, but that's my opinion."