- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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INDIANAPOLIS -- At the age of 81, Marv Levy picked a weird time to take a new job.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame head coach exchanged the joys of retirement for the grind of being the Bills' general manager. The timing was weird because he returns to the NFL at a time of labor discord. The NFL is on the verge of losing the salary cap in 2007 and a possible lockout in 2008.
"Maybe I'm the one at fault," Levy said jokingly. "The year I went to Kansas City, they had a strike the next year. The year I came to Buffalo, they had a strike the next year. I'm coming in now. I hope they don't have a strike next year."
The NFL won't strike in 2007, but it could be ugly, and the pall is cast on teams as they approach the start to the 2006 free agent season March 3. Talks between owners and players broke amicably Wednesday afternoon with no deal and both sides far apart. It's pretty clear the NFL owners are unlikely to settle their revenue differences in the next week. High-revenue teams and lower-revenue teams remain apart in splitting the riches of a $6 billion business.
Players Association boss Gene Upshaw continuously has said he won't do a deal without better revenue sharing, and he also said he's not moving back the start of free agency. Meanwhile, owners are saying Upshaw is asking too much. The owners and the union are negotiating the sharing of total revenue in the 60 percent range, but are about four percentage points apart.
With each percentage point being worth $2.5 million, it's the difference between a $92 million salary cap and a $102 million cap. That's a big difference, and Upshaw holds fast on the number because there isn't any settlement on the revenue sharing issue.
What a time to come back into the league.
"How difficult is it?" Levy said. "I don't know how many verys to put in front of the answer. When Mr. [Ralph] Wilson brought me back, he said it was going to be football, all football. I am the general manager of football operations. I will deal with personnel evaluations and matters, and who do we bring in and fine tuning. He said I won't have to handle any of the business as part of the deal."
The business of the NFL is getting messy. Teams are starting to panic as they approach free agency. No CBA extension means more players will be cut, rather than receive restructured contracts. No CBA extension means less cap room for free agents because teams have to leave room for incentives, which will count this year, and set aside room for dead money after releasing players.
Take the Steelers, for example. They manage the cap and their personnel well. When they placed Jerome Bettis on the reserve retired list, they trimmed $5.351 million of cap room and left themselves $1.3 million over the league's $92 million salary cap.
Here's the problem they face: They have 11 free agents, and the list is pretty hefty. Included is safety Chris Hope, wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, defensive ends Brett Keisel and Kimo von Oelhoffen and cornerback Deshea Townsend. That's four starters and one key backup.
"We really don't know where our people fit in," said Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' vice president of player personnel. "We want to keep them all, and to a man, they all want to stay with us. We will continue to monitor with the CBA obviously in mind. I don't know if we are going to sign all of 11 of them or if we are going to be able to sign one."
The NFL is in limbo awaiting collective bargaining talks. With recent signings and tenders to restricted free agents, and exclusive rights to free agents being disrupted, the 32 NFL teams were $7 million over the cap combined. That's one franchise tender away from being in leaguewide cap hell.
Everyone will be under by 4 p.m. March 2, but if there is no CBA extension by then, money will be tight. Teams are operating under two sets of plans: Plan A, a CBA extension and a $100 million cap, and Plan B, a $92 million to $95 million cap and significant problems in doing deals.
"It does play in the back of your mind what happens," Browns general manager Phil Savage said. "Does it allow other teams to get more involved in free agency if they get additional cap room at the 11th hour? I think we are in good shape either way."
The Browns are one of 14 teams under the cap as of Thursday. They have $13.2 million in cap room. But the cost of business will increase if there is no extension. Signing deals is complicated because of the so-called 30 percent rule, which prevents teams from front-loading contracts with big signing bonuses and low first-year bases. Each deal eats up more cap room than in past years, and there will be less cap room to eat.
For the moment, the league is at a standstill. With no extension and no cap in 2007, players will want only one-year deals. Because there is less cap room in 2006 without an extension, teams won't have much room to do one-year deals worth much more than NFL minimum salaries.
Upshaw meets with agents Friday for his annual seminar. Based on the latest round of negotiations, he will tell them to plan for an uncapped year in 2007, barring a last-minute settlement.
Poor Levy. Of the teams with cap room, the Bills are the lowest, with only $4 million worth. Remember, that's about what they will need for the rookie pool. They might have to release Eric Moulds, Lawyer Milloy or Sam Adams.
"I hope an agreement is made," Levy said. "I have always divorced myself of the business operations of the league. I used to tell my players, 'I'm not going to go to bat for you for your contract.' I hope they are able to work it out."
Around the combine
• Vikings keeping Williams, Culpepper? The biggest surprise among the franchise and transition tags was the decision by the Vikings to transition cornerback Brian Williams. Williams was the third cornerback behind Antoine Winfield and Fred Smoot. Even worse, he wants to leave the Vikings. "Brian doesn't want to go back," said his agent, Jordan Feagan. "He has no bad feelings or anything, but he wants to go to another team." The transition tag gives Williams the chance to negotiate with other teams but the Vikings have the right to match any offer. If they keep him, he will be a $5.9 million third cornerback.
Quarterback Daunte Culpepper's announcement that he is willing to adjust the timing of his $6 million roster bonus for March 17 is just what the Vikings wanted to hear. After shopping him briefly on the trade market, Culpepper is now showing a better willingness to work with the team instead of trying to jack them up for a bigger contract. It's pretty evident Culpepper didn't hit it off well with head coach Brad Childress. First, Culpepper didn't want to rehab in Minneapolis. Second, Childress and ownership kept hearing of how he wanted more money. But now, in addition to Culpepper providing some flexibility, teammates have been outspoken about their desire to see him stay with the franchise.
• Virginia Tech's ironman: A lot of college players attending the NFL scouting combine had to delay their lifting because many had to stay over at hospitals for X-rays and other examinations. This particularly affected the first group of running backs. Clearly, it didn't adversely affect guard Will Montgomery of Virginia Tech, who lifted 225 pounds a session-high 35 times.
• Cleveland's comings and goings: In Romeo Crennel's second year, the Browns plan to fully commit to a 3-4 defense. That, in part, explains the release of defensive end/linebacker Kenard Lang. "We felt like in making the transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4, we admire Kenard trying to lose weight, stand up and play outside 'backer, but it was a tough transfer for him," Savage said. "He certainly tried his best. At this point in his career and where we are in development of the Browns' defense and front seven, we'd be best to part ways on friendly terms." The Browns also released cornerback Michael Lehan, who was hampered by hamstring injuries throughout his career.
Savage also offered updates on the health of two of the Browns' best young offensive starters. Tight end Kellen Winslow is expected to be back sometime in June from the injuries suffered in his motorcycle accident last season. "I think a conservative time frame would be that K-2 would be back sometime in June, maybe for training camp," Savage said. He also said that wide receiver Braylon Edwards likely won't be ready until September. "I think it's a little early for us to guess that, but in the back of our mind that's what we're thinking," Savage said.
• What's in a name? If you are wondering where D'Brickashaw Ferguson got his first name: It comes from the movie "The Thorn Birds," a miniseries from 1983 starring Richard Chamberlain. "It dealt with a priest and some of the issues he had with his religious relationship and his love relationship with a particular female," Ferguson said. "The whole miniseries dealt with the interplay between the two. His name was Father [Ralph] de Bricassart, and my name was changed slightly." And Ferguson has watched the movie himself.
Ferguson showed up at the combine weighing 312 pounds, further helping an already good rating. Previously listed at 300 pounds, he was considered a little light for a left tackle. Now at 6-foot-6, 312, Ferguson should go in the top five.
• Coin toss: The 49ers and Raiders will have a coin toss at 8 p.m. ET Friday to determine which team picks sixth and which goes seventh in the NFL draft.
• Bloom set to run: Give wide receiver Jeremy Bloom some credit. He is going to run at the combine even though he just came from the Olympics, where he competed as a skier. The weird part for him is that he has been training for skiing instead of the NFL. The former Colorado wide receiver projects he'll run a 4.5 or better in the 40. He ran for the first time in six weeks just the other day. His hip was a little sore but he's going to run anyway. Bloom expects that by his April 1 workout, he will be at 185 pounds -- up from 170.
• Bush ready to carry load: USC running back Reggie Bush thinks he can handle more than 10-15 carries a game. "Well, I like to think of myself as an every-down back," Bush said. "That's something that I feel like I want to, I guess, emphasize to the teams, whatever team that takes me, that I can be an every-down back. Even though I'm not the biggest guy -- I'm not 220 pounds -- that I can still carry the load and be in there when the game is on the line. Obviously I'm going to want the ball in my hands. I'm a playmaker."
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.