Tagliabue's impassioned plea gives owners pause

3/9/2006 - NFL

GRAPEVINE, Texas -- For the first three hours of Tuesday's crucial NFL owners meeting here, everything was informational. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue and others detailed the six-year proposal from the NFL Players Association that commanded 59.5 percent of team revenues. Like patients receiving medicine, the owners took the bad news dose by dose.

Labor costs were much higher than expected. Provisions in the deal irritated owners and front-office people alike. Few liked what they heard.

The tone of the meeting changed when the subject turned to revenue sharing, a problem within the league that has been getting worse for the past two years. In response to a question, Tagliabue stood up and delivered what some considered to be the best speech in his term as commissioner.

Remember, Tagliabue isn't taking a position -- publicly or privately -- on whether owners should accept or reject the players' proposal. His agreement with NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw was to present the union's final proposal to the full body of owners, even though he knows the cost it carries is probably higher than what the owners are willing to accept.

Yet, during Tagliabue's answer that turned into a speech, he emphasized the importance of walking out of this meeting Wednesday with some kind of a deal. He knows Upshaw is done negotiating. The union granted the owners a three-day reprieve for the start of free agency so they can decide if this deal is acceptable.

But Tagliabue's words hit home.

"I think he has made it very clear to me and the other owners that the future of labor relations, player relations, union relations are going to be decided in 24 hours," Giants co-owner Steve Tisch said. "I never heard Paul more opinionated and more animated and committed and passionate as he was tonight. I'm extremely impressed with his positioning, his leadership and his passion, which really came up in the afternoon sessions."

Owners wouldn't repeat Tagliabue's words, but they were apparent. Negotiations with the union are done. The players were willing to reject the NFL's last proposal and start free agency Sunday night. The league was heading toward an uncapped 2007 and a possible lockout in 2008 had someone not done something.

Though Tagliabue didn't want to take the union's proposal to the owners, it was the only way to salvage the salary cap and labor peace. He got all the owners to Dallas and into the same room on Tuesday. On Wednesday, either the NFL will come up with a revenue-sharing plan to make the union's proposal work, or free agency will start at 12:01 a.m. Thursday and the league's labor problems will escalate.

Tagliabue made it clear that at this point there is no more negotiating with the union. If the owners accept the proposal before 8 p.m. ET Wednesday, free agency will start at 12:01 a.m. Friday. If there is no acceptance, free agency will start Thursday as scheduled and 2006 will be perhaps the last year in NFL history with a salary cap.

Once Tagliabue made his speech, the lobbying began. Votes need to be sold. High-revenue teams have to sign off on a revenue-sharing plan that will cost them money. Low-revenue teams have to be convinced that the plan will keep their franchises financially solvent.

Tagliabue summed up history and the future with one long, well-narrated answer. Half the owners in the room are new to the league since the 1980s. They didn't go through the NFL's labor problems in the 1970s and '80s. They didn't own teams when the NFL and NFLPA forged a salary cap agreement from years of lawsuits and one painful settlement. In the '80s, the NFL almost lost a season like hockey did last year.

Upshaw and Tagliabue get along well and can negotiate deals together, but they aren't going to be around forever. Tagliabue's contract is running out, and he might retire before long. Upshaw has two years remaining on his deal.

If the NFL lets the salary cap disappear, it might be impossible to bring it back, because Upshaw and Tagliabue might not be there to fix it.

These are 24 of the most critical hours in the league's history.

"Paul as been a tremendous communicator," Tisch said. "He has really given Gene's benefits of the deal to the owners. I'm sure afterward, a number of owners will have an opinion. You know, like any other negotiation, when the clock gets to 11:59, I think things get pretty close."

Some owners were getting optimistic vibes from the room that something could pass before Wednesday night. Others, like Bob McNair of the Houston Texans, were pessimistic.

"There's a lot of work to do," he said.

"I'm sold we negotiated the best we can under the circumstances," Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said earlier Tuesday. "So I think we ought to take a look at this thing at its face value."

Here are a few other provisions of the deal:

• Teams will be able to use their franchise tag on a player more than once, but if they franchise a player for a third time, they will have to do it at a salary equivalent to that of a top-five quarterback, the highest-paid position in football.

• Contracts for players selected in rounds two through seven of the draft will be limited to four years in length. More and more teams have been trying to lock second-day draft choices into five-year contracts that prevent the player from hitting restricted free agency after year three and unrestricted free agency after year four.

• Bonuses in contracts will be prorated over five years this year and over six years in 2007, but in 2008 the proration reverts to five years.

The Tuesday meeting ended at 10:15 p.m. ET, completing more than eight hours of talks. No vote was taken, and most of the evening was spent discussing at least three different revenue sharing plans, plans that have been discussed for years.

Raiders owner Al Davis joked that a lot of people were in the room "giving money away." While the discussion was good, no revenue-sharing deal was close to settled.

"Whenever you discuss revenue sharing, it's like Groundhog Day," Colts owner Jim Irsay said.

Steelers owner Dan Rooney was asked if there was any progress as the meeting ended. "Nothing worth talking about," he said.

Talks resumed at 9 a.m. ET Wednesday, giving the owners 11 hours to get word back to the NFLPA about whether they accept the proposal or not.

One thing is clear: There will be no extensions past Wednesday.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.