Wary Bengals welcome labor peace

Posted: 12:45 a.m.

The NFL and its players struck an eleventh-hour deal in Dallas on Wednesday night when the owners approved a six-year extension of the collective bargaining agreement that secures labor peace and opens free agency Saturday at 12:01 a.m.

Bengals president Mike Brown and Bills owner Ralph Wilson dissented on a pact that was approved by a 30-2 vote of the owners. Brown and Wilson apparently weren't pleased with the revenue-sharing plan cobbled together in the last hours as the NFL Players Association's 8 p.m. deadline loomed. While the Bengals aren't sure of the new environment in which the 2006 salary cap has been driven to about $102 million, they are prepared Friday to pursue a backup quarterback and open extension talks with their offensive line.

The cap is expected to rise $17 million over last season and then $7 million more to $109 million next season with a new CBA that encompasses virtually all of the NFL's revenue streams that accounted for about $5.5 billion in 2005.

Brown had no comment after the owners broke from their meeting about 9 p.m. Cincinnati time. But it was no secret he was aligned with a faction of small-market owners led by spokesman Wayne Weaver of Jacksonville in order to make sure smaller-revenue clubs like the Bengals can keep pace with the spiraling costs.

With players receiving 59.5 percent of all league revenues, the Bengals and others have had reservations about the league sustaining such numbers into the future. With each team's salary cap determined by the average revenue, the Bengals were looking for the big-market teams to share each dollar that they drove up the cap with their local revenues of stadium streams, marketing, preseason television deals, and sponsorships.

In the end, NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue rejected the dollar-for-dollar idea and opted for a more moderate plan that appeased the big-market owners as well as Weaver, Jim Irsay of Indianapolis, Al Davis of Oakland, and Bill Bidwill of Arizona.

A deal that looked dead Wednesday afternoon began to take shape when the big market owners began to give on revenue sharing.

As part of the revenue-sharing plan, no team has to spend more than 65 percent of its revenue on players. The calculation is that the bigger markets have accounted for $240 million of the player costs this year, and they will share a little over $100 million, or about 40 percent of what they raised the cap league-wide.

"We're going to share revenue of almost $500 million over the first four years of the agreement," Tagliabue said at a news conference at the hotel airport that was the scene of the toughest day of his two-decade tenure.

The bottom 17 teams in revenue won't contribute to the pool, but the Bengals apparently still have concerns that the revenue-sharing plan doesn't begin to make up for the league's widening disparity. The 65 percent revenue cap to pay players is nowhere near the 57.5 percent of local revenues the players receive.

And in taking the 2004 revenue numbers as reported by Forbes Magazine and applying them to the 2006 cap that is about $120 million including benefits on top of salaries, the Redskins have the most revenue at $287 million and that means they're spending 42 percent of their revenues on players. The Bengals, tied for 21st at $171 million, are spending 70 percent. The Bengals see themselves spending nearly 50 percent more on players than the large markets.

"I didn't understand it," Buffalo's Wilson said. "It was a complicated thing. They wanted us to vote in 45 minutes. I didn't think that was the right way to handle it. I didn't understand it. I didn't think I was a dropout, but maybe I am."

Wilson, like Brown, the only owner his franchise has ever had, found himself aligned with him in the last hour after a combination of revenue sharing plans were pieced together by a group of nine owners that ranged from the large market to the small in going with Tagliabue on a more moderate plan. They were working off a model originally pushed by the Steelers' Art and Dan Rooney that would have had each team put 25 percent of local revenues into a pool that would be distributed to teams in the lower end of the revenue stream.

"On behalf of the players, the NFLPA staff and the negotiating team, we are pleased that this process has finally concluded with an agreement," NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw said in a statement. "This agreement is not about one side winning or losing. Ultimately, it is about what is best for the players, the owners and the fans of the National Football League."

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, at the opposite end of the galaxy to Brown with a plan of zero revenue sharing, triumphantly met the media on his home tuft admitting the players had asked for an uneasy amount.

"We were willing to make some sacrifices to get this thing done," Jones said in Internet reports late Wednesday. "The proposal from the union was a mean mother."

The deal staves off the chaos of an uncapped year in 2007 and a possible work stoppage in 2008. Even Davis, the Raiders boss that traditionally abstains on votes and distances himself from the league, voted for the deal because the specter of a work stoppage and no draft could give birth to a rival league.

Pieces in place

Although the Bengals weren't in any group hugs, they welcomed the labor peace. And while they have to run the numbers with the new revenue-sharing component and are uncertain where it leaves them in the big picture, they are confident they are set up to compete right now for a championship.

Plus, now that the CBA is in place, they finally have some answers to their questions. They now know that left tackle Levi Jones and left guard Eric Steinbach, their Pro Bowl alternates, are going to join Pro Bowl right tackle Willie Anderson, center Rich Braham, and right guard Bobbie Williams as free agents after '06. Look for them to target the younger guys first in Jones, Steinbach and Williams.

They also may now be able to sign another free agent or two in addition to the quarterback, but look for them to first try and do what they did last year in re-signing their own with long-term deals for running back Rudi Johnson and wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh.

The Bengals were thought to have about $4-5 million to spend in free agency when the cap was $94.5 million, so it will be interesting to see what the numbers are going to crunch now that it's about $7.5 million higher.

The Bengals start aiming for a backup quarterback Friday, and he very well could be their seventh Opening Day quarterback in the last nine seasons depending on Carson Palmer's rehab from reconstructive knee surgery. Last week's original list now includes Tommy Maddox, Patrick Ramsey and Daunte Culpepper.

Ramsey and Culpepper don't look to be in the mix for the Bengals because it would take a trade and the former first-round picks are both looking for starting jobs. Maddox, cut by the Steelers last week, is also a first-rounder, but that was 14 years ago.

After a two-year stint backing up Ben Roethlisberger in Pittsburgh, he appears content to be a No. 2 behind the right guy on the right team. He has the long-ball game that the Bengals play with Palmer and he performed well in similar spread sets when he threw 38 touchdown passes in 2002 and 2003 under former Steelers offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey.

Jon Kitna has told the Bengals he's looking for a team that will allow him to compete for the starting job, and the addition of Ramsey and Culpepper to the market may cut into his options. Ramsey has already been granted permission by the Redskins to visit the Jets, a team that is reportedly also interested in Kitna.

The Jets are also looking at former Bengal and current Dolphin Gus Frerotte, another current Dolphin in Sage Rosenfels, and the Cardinals' Josh McCown.

Ramsey and Rosenfels both have a Bengals connection in Cincinnati wide receivers coach Hue Jackson from his days in Washington. Another free-agent backup, the Rams' Jamie Martin, also has a Bengals tie in quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese. Tim Hasselbeck of the Giants is listed as being represented by Palmer's agent, the Los Angeles-based David Dunn.

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