ATLANTA - The NFL owners voted unanimously Tuesday to end their agreement with the players' union in 2011, two years before the deal was to expire.
The league, however, emphasized that it will keep negotiating with the NFL Players Association and said games will be played "without threat of interruption for at least the next three seasons."
The owners had until Nov. 8 to opt out of the agreement, a provision written into the deal when it was signed in March 2006. They decided to act early, partly because they didn't want to do so while the 2008 season had begun.
Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFLPA, said on Sirius NFL Radio he learned of the owners' decision by e-mail from commissioner Roger Goodell.
"My response to his e-mail was very simple: 'What a surprise,'" Upshaw said sarcastically.
Upshaw has been predicting this the last few months and last weekend referred to the owners as "greedy."
The last time an agreement was made, the deal was done a year before the capless year. Upshaw said during a conference call the realistic deadline is 2010 because the cap for 2007 already has been set at $123 million. The original contract, signed in 1993, specified that the final year of the deal be without a cap.
"As they say during the draft, we're on the clock," Upshaw said. "That's basically what it means."
The owners noted in their statement that they are paying $4.5 billion to players this year, just under 60 percent of their total revenues as specified in the 2006 agreement.
They acknowledge that before the 1996 agreement the pendulum had swung toward them. Now, they contend, the new deal combined with a decline in the economy has made the agreement more favorable to players.
Negotiations already have started and will continue with no immediate threat to the order of business. In fact, the deal, originally scheduled to end in 2013, had the opt-out built in.
"When we negotiated this deal we had two stop points that you could decide to terminate, either side," Upshaw said. "Obviously, the owners have decided to take this termination early. We expected it. But it means that there is football through 2010, not through 2012."