GRAPEVINE, Texas - What was supposed to be the absolutely, positively final meeting to solve the NFL's labor problems began Tuesday, with owners trying to decide whether to accept the union's latest proposal.
A decision on whether to extend the collective bargaining agreement was unlikely to come down until today, close to the latest deadline of 8 p.m. It'll take that long for the owners to resolve their differences over internal revenue sharing, the most divisive issue facing them. If they don't get that straight, a deal is unlikely.
"It's going to be a while. Quite a while," said Buffalo's Ralph Wilson, one of leading proponents of revenue sharing.
Much of the early hours of Tuesday's meeting was spent simply listening to commissioner Paul Tagliabue go through details of the union's proposal. Then Tagliabue outlined revenue sharing, but there was no discussion before the owners broke for dinner.
"We haven't punched anybody yet," said Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney, who described Tagliabue's remarks as "Excellent. Super."
"He described how the owners and players should be in this together for the good of the league," added Rooney, who has helped to solve past labor disputes.
League spokesman Joe Browne said Tagliabue agreed with Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, that the owners would have a decision no later than 8 p.m. today. That would come as the union, which is meeting in Hawaii, holds its executive board session.
There seemed to be some hope they would reach an agreement that would extend the contract that runs out after the 2007 season. It came from Dallas owner Jerry Jones, who is 180 degrees away from Wilson on sharing, but suggested for the first time that he might have to give in a bit to let the owners solve their dispute.
"We want to play football," Jones said as he entered the meeting. "We have an obligation to everyone, particularly our fans.
"My gut is we're going to come up with something, but it's still up in the air. It's going to be long and drawn out and tough."
Finding a solution now is critical because free agency, pushed back twice, is scheduled to start Thursday with a $94.5 million salary cap that could go as much as $10 million higher if there is an extension. And although both sides have agreed there will be no more extensions there would be one more if there is an agreement - until 12:01 a.m. Friday to give teams time to get everything in order.