The NFL players' union has advised its members to prepare for a lockout that it expects to come in March, telling players to save their last three game checks this year in case there isn't a 2011 season.
In a letter to the players that was seen by The Associated Press, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said the union had an "internal deadline" for agreeing to a new collective bargaining agreement.
"That deadline has now passed," Smith wrote. "It is important that you protect yourself and your family."
It wasn't clear what effect the passing of the self-imposed deadline would have on negotiations. NFLPA spokesman George Atallah said in an e-mail to The AP that he wouldn't comment because the letter was supposed to be internal, but he later took to Twitter to explain the situation.
Atallah tweeted that the letter provided "an internal deadline to prepare, not for CBA negotiations." He also revealed that the league and union met Friday.
NFL Network insider Jason La Canfora confirmed the meeting through a source with knowledge of the situation. It was the sides' second sit-down in the last two weeks -- a rarity so far. Previously, they had talked every 4 to 6 weeks.
Copies of the NFLPA's letter, which was dated Wednesday, were strewn across a table in the New England Patriots' locker room Saturday and were visible to players, reporters and team officials. After a reporter asked players about the letter, a Patriots spokesman flipped the copies face-down.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello called the union's stance "disappointing and inexplicable, especially for fans."
"We hope this does not mean the union has abandoned negotiating in favor of de-certifying and litigating," he said. "We are ready to meet and negotiate anytime and anywhere. But it takes sustained effort and shared commitment to reach an agreement. One side can't do it alone."
It wasn't clear when the union's self-imposed deadline was or what has changed now that it has passed. NFLPA spokesman George Atallah didn't immediately return calls seeking clarification.
The NFL hasn't missed games due to labor strife since 1987, when owners responded to a player strike by continuing the season with replacement players. But the prospect of a lost season in 2011 intensified when owners opted out of the collective bargaining agreement in 2008.
Smith has said that he believes the owners opted out with the goal of locking out the players. The NFLPA's home page features a "Lockout Watch" that counts down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the CBA expires on March 3.
The one-page letter on NFLPA stationery said the union expects the lockout to come March 4 and that players should work with their advisers to prepare for an impending lack of income.
The letter also said the league is planning to cancel the players' health insurance. The union said it is filing a grievance to contest the cancellation, citing a section of the collective bargaining agreement that states: "Players will continue to receive the benefits provided in this article through the end of the Plan Year in which they are released or otherwise sever employment."
Dennis Curran, NFL senior vice president for labor litigation and policy, told the union in October that an employer isn't obligated to provide wages or salary or to pay for certain continued benefits for employees during a work stoppage. Curran added that under federal law, employees are entitled to continue their employer-provided health insurance coverage at their own or their union's expense.
At that time, Aiello also pointed to the federal COBRA law, which allows employees to continue their existing coverage without interruption at their own expense or the expense of their union.
"This means that no player or family member would experience any change in coverage for so much as a single day because of a work stoppage," Aiello told The AP in an e-mail. "The union surely knows this and there is no excuse for suggesting otherwise."
Patriots offensive lineman Matt Light, one of the team's player representatives, said Saturday that players understand the nature of the business, but canceling health insurance is a different matter.
"You're going to cancel somebody's health insurance and maybe they've got a baby that's due in the offseason?" he said. "Yeah, it gets personal."
Light said he is doing his best to educate his teammates on how to prepare.
"They've got to look at it like they're going into a period in which they are going to change their financial situation," he said. "Nobody knows what's going to happen. But if you're going to go a year without getting paid, you need to prepare accordingly."
Under the deal agreed to in 2006, the players receive 59.6 percent of designated NFL revenues. The owners opted out of that deal beginning next year, arguing they have huge debts from building stadiums and starting up NFL Network that make it impossible to be profitable.
The two sides met last month and said they made "some progress" on proposals involving an 18-game regular season and limiting offseason workouts.
Players have taken their case to the public in recent weeks, briefing Congress on the job loss and other economic impact of a lockout and even drafting letters for lawmakers to send to the league. Using many of the same studies the NFL relies on when trumpeting public subsidies for new stadiums, an economist commissioned by the union estimated an average of about $160 million in local spending and 3,000 jobs would be lost in each league city if the full 2011 season were wiped out.
The NFL called the figures "a fairy tale."
Patriots linebacker Tully Banta-Cain said he already was squirreling away his savings in case of a lockout. Banta-Cain said he also was working on his outside businesses, which include a clothing line and a music label.
"I'm trying to prepare," he said. "And I'm trying to establish my off-the-field businesses and make sure I can make money in the offseason."
For more labor news, visit http://NFLLabor.com
The Associated Press contributed to this report.