NEW YORK -- NFL owners voted unanimously Thursday to break off talks with the players' union on a contract extension, leaving the current salary cap in place with the start of free agency looming and possibly forcing the mass dumping of veterans.
"The situation is about as dire as dire can be," commissioner Paul Tagliabue said.
The owners, who met for 57 minutes Thursday morning, endorsed a recommendation by their management council executive committee to reject the union's latest proposal.
The breakdown of talks left intact, for now, a salary cap of $94.5 million. The two sides had hoped to add $10 million to $15 million to the 2006 salary cap. Without the additional room, some teams could be forced into wholesale cuts to get beneath the cap by midnight. Free agency starts Friday.
Without an agreement, 2006 will be the last season with a salary cap; under the current contract, 2007 is scheduled to be an uncapped year.
Owners did not seem inclined to cut into the difference of 4 percentage points between the sides. New England owner Robert Kraft had suggested that the meeting Thursday morning might be short, just enough time to rubber stamp the executive committee's decision.
That's exactly what the owners did.
"The players are totally out of bounds," said Dallas owner Jerry Jones. Most of the other owners declined comment, unusual in a league where many are eager to express their opinion.
Gene Upshaw, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, said he expected the move by the owners. He said it was unlikely that talks would resume soon, although some league officials suggested anything could happen.
But the two sides remain far apart. According to Upshaw, the union wants a little over 60 percent of the league's total revenue; the owners are offering 56.2 percent.
"I won't come down," Upshaw said Thursday. "The players know that. Only the owners can make a proposal."
That is unlikely to happen.
"They have to make a fundamental change in their proposal in how they are defining their expectations for the players," Tagliabue said.
Beyond the numbers is an issue that has divided the owners for two years: revenue sharing among the teams.
Under the current system, some teams make far more than others in ancillary income, ranging from local radio rights to stadium naming rights and advertising. The lower-revenue teams say that forces them to commit as much as 70 percent of that money to the players while teams with more outside money contribute far less, giving the high-revenue teams more available cash for upfront bonuses to free agents.
An uncapped year in 2007 would mean new rules that will force teams and agents to change their plans this year and could keep a lot of teams out of the free-agent market entirely. More will have to cut players to meet the cap because they negotiated long-term deals anticipating an extension of the union contract.
A few teams do have room, notably Arizona, Cleveland and Minnesota, all relatively low spenders in the past. Washington, which has thrown money at free agents since Daniel Snyder bought the team in 1999, may be in the deepest cap trouble.
"It might mean that no rookies get signed because no one is sure of the long-term ramifications," said Tom Condon, the agent for a number of the game's top players.
The ramifications of a lower than anticipated cap were evident Wednesday, when some high-priced veterans were cut. Among them were defensive end Trevor Pryce and running back Mike Anderson of Denver, the team's leading rusher last season. Denver also cut tight end Jeb Putzier.
Buffalo, meanwhile, released defensive tackle Sam Adams, and Carolina released three veterans: running back Stephen Davis, defensive tackle Brentson Buckner and kick returner Rod Smart, "He Hate Me" of old XFL days.
Miami cut left tackle Damion McIntosh, saving $3.8 million against the cap, and former Pro Bowl cornerback Sam Madison. The Dolphins are a prime example of a team that needs a new labor agreement: They are estimated to be about $9 million over a $95 million cap.