EARLY TOMORROW morning, the NFL enters what might be its final free-agency period without a salary cap. It arrives with so much money that it has no idea what to do with it. It leaves Eagles president Joe Banner, sitting on something like $40 million of cap space, to state the unexpected truth: "You couldn't spend it."

Banner said that last week to the Daily News' Les Bowen. It was an executive putting words to what has been an NFL reality for the last year or so. The salary cap has grown so much, and teams have become so adept at hanging on to their own good players, that free agency for many has become an exercise in marginalia. There will be a couple of huge signings, such as the Eagles pulled off with Asante Samuel last year, but not a bonanza.

There is never enough money in the other sports, but the NFL literally cannot spend up to the salary cap. The sport has created a system where everybody has gotten rich, but a system in which the teams have continued to hold the ultimate control. Why the owners seem hellbent on labor Armageddon seems ridiculous when you look at what will begin to happen at just past midnight.

The salary cap this season will be $123 million. There are teams that are something like $50 million below the cap. There are teams that will struggle to find a way to spend the required minimum this year, which is about $106 million.

Repeat: They cannot possibly spend all of their money.

For an owner, what's not to like?

I know, I know, new stadiums are expensive and the owners feel like that financial burden - which boosts the salary cap by raising revenues - isn't being recognized by the players. The truth is, the players already have kicked in money for stadium construction - something no union has done in any other sport.

You think former baseball union chief Marvin Miller, the conscience of the sports labor movement, rails about drug testing? Ask him sometime about the NFL union rolling over on this issue for a while several years ago - you know, like steel workers agreeing to help pay for a new plant, or a receptionist throwing in a few bucks so they can repave the parking lot outside the office building.

The owners are about to overreach in a way that will redefine overreaching forever. Because they have this thing knocked for all time and can't seem to see it.

Repeat: They cannot possibly spend all of their money.

Why would they want to mess with that success?

It was not supposed to work like this. It does not work like this in any other sport. In basketball and hockey, the salary cap increases as leaguewide revenue increases - and those increases are almost immediately swallowed whole by teams desperate to improve themselves by bidding for players. In the NFL, it was like that for a long time, too.

But two things have happened.

First, the cap has exploded in the last couple of years because of the NFL's most recent television contract, where huge increases were backloaded into the deal.

Second, for want of a better description, more and more teams around the league have begun to act like the Eagles. That is, they lock up the players they really want to lock up and do it sooner than before. They know what the players know: That the injury risk, so severe in the NFL, can rob a player of his big payday. So they make good-but-not-great offers and the players take them for the security.

Some believe there are more better players available this year. We'll see. But there aren't a lot of tackles and there aren't a lot of receivers, which are two places the Eagles have interest. They could do the T.J. Houshmandzadeh thing and nobody in town would complain, even though they really have bigger issues elsewhere, and even though he really makes them only marginally better at the position. And, of course, that would remove them from a possible trade for Anquan Boldin later on - and Boldin could help them more, albeit at a greater cost. But if you wait on the possibility of Boldin, and the Cardinals don't trade him, Housmandzadeh will be gone. So, the dilemma.

Other than that, there isn't a player out there likely to get a rise out of the paying customers. And while the Eagles do have the ability to surprise people at this time of year, well, it's hard to see. This isn't nearly as much fun as it used to be. *

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