Indianapolis -- The NFL scouting combine is typically a time when college players are put to the test for the benefit of pro football staffs, who are beginning in earnest their preparations for the draft in late April.
But this combine, being held as usual at the RCA Dome, differs substantially because the league's personnel masterminds are being put through the wringer as well. With players beginning physical testing today, general managers and head coaches have their attention seriously divided, keeping one eye on their stopwatches and another on the multisided negotiations that will determine how they'll assemble their teams for this year and beyond.
Unless NFL owners and the players union hammer out a labor agreement extension by March 3 when free agency begins, roster fundamentals - such as the league's salary cap and how player contracts are structured - will be enormously affected.
Complicating those talks is a squabble among owners of so-called high-revenue franchises and other owners over how much locally generated revenue should go into the pool of shared money, a concept that has been the bedrock of the league's financial model.
"Talking to my peers around the league, there's a lot of uncertainty," said New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum, who added, hopefully: "I'm always rooting for more [salary] cap room."
The salary cap, which was $85.5 million for the 2005 season, is projected to be between $92 million and $95 million in 2006. But without an extension to the collective bargaining agreement, 2007 would be an uncapped season. To preserve the salary cap - a boon to management - the players want a percentage in the 60s of total revenues that would go toward salaries.
And then there are the discussions about just what revenues should count toward total revenues. Clubs enjoying higher local revenues, such as the Dallas Cowboys, are reluctant to share that cash with other teams. The bulk of league income, from national TV contracts and merchandise sales, is shared. Talks on how the additional revenue is treated are also continuing, and a resolution may be necessary before a CBA extension can be reached.
Union head Gene Upshaw has put a deadline of today on his negotiations with owners, and it is the CBA that gives general managers and coaches the road map for plotting their teams' courses.
Therein lies the problem for every personnel decision-maker in the league. A CBA extension likely would raise the 2006 salary cap to more than $100 million, giving some teams immediate relief.
On the other hand, no extension means the existing tighter cap for this season would remain in place; other contract negotiating tools (such as backloading contracts) may vanish, and then there's the bewildering prospect of a capless 2007.
Listen to enough general managers and the league-wide company line is obvious. Teams have two personnel plans, one that assumes an extension and a backup plan if there's none.
It should only be that simple.
"There are so many other things that fall into it, too," said San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "Who's on the market, who's not? This guy's going to get paid this, this guy's not. How does it affect our team? What's the priority? If this guy's there, do we want this guy more than this guy?"
Nolan made a comparison to the draft. For instance, when the 49ers picked quarterback Alex Smith with the No. 1 overall choice in 2005, the decision was uncomplicated. But the lower a team's draft place, the more complex the process of making the right pick.
The absence of an extension, he said, is like "everybody comes out of the gate in the 32nd [draft spot] ... because everybody's going, 'Whoa, nobody's got the upper hand.' "
Against this clouded backdrop, NFL hopefuls began getting measured and weighed yesterday, and started scheduling interviews with teams.
Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush appeared for a news conference but will not perform at the combine, opting instead to run for scouts on his own workout day April 2. Bush, who measured 6 feet and 201 pounds, said he has been working on strength training and now will concentrate on his 40-yard dash time.
"This is about competing right now," Bush said. "I'm competing to be the first pick."
Recognized as an explosive offensive threat, Bush is not considered durable enough to touch the ball 20 to 30 times a game.
"I'm going to work hard at proving to people that I can be an every-down back," he said. "Obviously I want to be in there. If I could, I'd [carry the] ball every play. That's just the competitive nature inside me."