Former Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett, who beat the NFL in court six months ago only to have the victory overturned on appeal, could be a man without a team this fall.

A person familiar with Clarett's planning said this week that Clarett probably would sit out the upcoming season and then enter the 2005 NFL draft if he does not secure an improbable, last-minute court ruling that would enable him to enter the league this year. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because Clarett's case remains before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit.

Sitting out this season would mean that Clarett would be coming off two seasons without football by the time he entered next year's draft. A series of off-the-field problems led to him sitting out last season after leading Ohio State to a national championship as a freshman in the 2002 season.

He sued the NFL and was made temporarily eligible for this year's draft by a February decision by U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin, who ruled that the league's eligibility requirement -- that a player must be at least three years removed from high school -- violated antitrust laws. But a three-judge panel of the appeals court granted the NFL's request for a stay of Scheindlin's ruling to keep Clarett and other affected players out of the draft in April, and two U.S. Supreme Court justices rejected Clarett's applications for emergency relief to have the stay lifted.

The three appeals-court judges later overturned Scheindlin's decision, ruling that the NFL's draft-eligibility rule is exempt from antitrust laws because it resulted from collective bargaining between the league and the NFL Players Association. Clarett's attorney, Alan C. Milstein, has asked the full appeals court to take up the case but has not received an answer, and could appeal to the Supreme Court if that fails.

NFL officials seem confident that they have succeeded in keeping Clarett out of the league until next year, when he is eligible to enter the draft under the current eligibility rule. Players Association chief Gene Upshaw has said that the union and the league will attempt to close the loophole through which Clarett temporarily became eligible for the draft by putting the eligibility rule expressly into the parties' labor deal as part of negotiations on an extension of the collective bargaining agreement. The rule is not written into the current labor deal, but the appeals court accepted the NFL's argument that the rule resulted from the collective bargaining process because the union had raised no objections to it. Upshaw has expressed his support for the rule publicly.

Executives around the league believed that Clarett would have been selected in the second or third round of this year's draft if he'd remained eligible, but it's unclear how far he'd fall in next year's draft with another idle season. There was speculation after Clarett was barred from this year's draft that he'd attempt to return to college football or play professionally in the Canadian Football League.

Wide receiver Mike Williams, who entered the draft after Scheindlin's decision temporarily made college freshmen and sophomores and high school players eligible, is attempting to return to USC and is awaiting a ruling by the NCAA on his application to have his collegiate eligibility restored.

He has been practicing with the Trojans. Williams helped USC to a share of the national title last season as a sophomore and, like Clarett, is eligible for next year's draft.

Union Back Before Burbank?

Could the Players Association be headed back to the courtroom of Stephen B. Burbank, the NFL's special master in charge of settling disputes arising from the collective bargaining agreement?

Upshaw said Tuesday evening that the union would contest quarterback Quincy Carter's release by the Dallas Cowboys last week but had not decided on the manner in which to do so. He and Richard Berthelsen, the union's general counsel, are discussing the matter and will decide within the next few days, Upshaw said.

"There's going to be something, but we have to decide what the course of action is going to be," Upshaw said.

When the union scored a major victory in the offseason by undoing the trade that sent wide receiver Terrell Owens from the San Francisco 49ers to the Baltimore Ravens and got him traded to the Philadelphia Eagles instead, it bypassed the standard grievance process and went straight to Burbank, a University of Pennsylvania Law School professor appointed by U.S. District Judge David S. Doty, who oversees the NFL's collective bargaining agreement. Special-master cases are trial-like proceedings in which rules of evidence apply and discovery takes place.

Owens and his agent, David Joseph, had missed a deadline to void the remainder of Owens's contract with the 49ers and make him a free agent, and the league's Management Council had ruled that he remained under contract to San Francisco and the 49ers had the right to trade him to Baltimore. But the union maintained that the rules governing such contract situations had been misapplied for several years and Owens should be declared a free agent. Burbank agreed and apparently was ready to rule Owens a free agent when the parties hurriedly crafted a compromise that put Owens where he wanted to be, in Philadelphia.

The union perhaps could go back to Burbank in the Carter case because the collective bargaining agreement prohibits a player from being released due to a failed drug test. The Cowboys released Carter, their incumbent starter entering training camp, last Wednesday, reportedly after a recent violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy. Carter reportedly already was in the league's substance-abuse program because of a previous failed drug test and was facing a fine equal to four of his regular season game checks.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said last week that he believed the Carter move would withstand scrutiny by the league or the union and was made by him and Coach Bill Parcells because of a series of developments, not a single event. Union officials, however, seem to believe they could prove that Carter was released because of a failed drug test because Parcells had said only a few days before the move that Carter was the front-runner to retain the starting job.

Union leaders also are concerned about reports last week that Carter failed a team-administered drug test. Individual NFL clubs are barred from conducting their own drug tests. Cowboys officials told the league that they were not testing their players.

If the union does bring a case before Burbank, any ruling that he would make would be subject to review by Doty.

Taylor Inspired Winslow

A person familiar with Kellen Winslow Jr.'s negotiations with the Cleveland Browns said the rookie tight end became eager to complete a deal and get to training camp after watching his former University of Miami teammate, safety Sean Taylor, intercept two passes in the Washington Redskins' victory Monday over the Denver Broncos.

That led to Tuesday night's meeting in Cleveland between agent Kevin Poston, Winslow's father and Browns President John Collins. And the group emerged with an agreement on a six-year contract worth about $29 million, including a $16.5 million signing bonus. Incentives and escalators can push the value of the deal to about $40 million.

Browns owner Randy Lerner had been adamant that he wouldn't allow the total value of the contract to approach $60 million, as Winslow's camp had sought. But a person familiar with the deal said late Tuesday night that the Browns indeed had agreed to give Winslow a $16.5 million signing bonus, not $16.5 million in total bonus money spread over several different bonuses. Top pick Eli Manning's contract with the New York Giants, for instance, contains $20 million in bonuses, but only $3 million of that total came in the signing bonus. The Browns did not, however, guarantee the entire $29 million, as some reports suggested, the person said.

Winslow was the sixth overall pick in the draft.

Rivers Signing Weeks Away?

It seems likely to be several weeks before the San Diego Chargers and quarterback Philip Rivers, the fourth overall choice in the draft obtained in a draft-day trade with the Giants, agree to a contract. Rivers and his agent, Jimmy Sexton, were taken aback by the Chargers' decision to break off negotiations with a public announcement Monday in which the club said that it had offered more money to Rivers that second overall pick Robert Gallery or third overall selection Larry Fitzgerald received. Sexton said that isn't true.

"Anyone who knows me knows that I don't like to negotiate publicly," Sexton said by telephone Tuesday evening. "But sometimes you're left with no choice.'' . . . Giants Coach Tom Coughlin was surprised to learn that Manning plans to wear a knee brace in Friday night's preseason opener against the Kansas City Chiefs. The quarterback told Coughlin that he'd suffered no specific injury and had worn such a brace in college as a precaution. . . .

The Arizona Cardinals sent Anquan Boldin to meet with the team's physicians in Phoenix after the standout second-year receiver hurt his knee during a practice Tuesday. . . . Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks hurt his knee during a spirited practice Tuesday, but Coach Jon Gruden said the injury is not serious. . . .

Wide receiver Tim Brown said after signing with the Buccaneers on Tuesday, six days after he was released by Oakland, that he only briefly considered retirement.

"When you go through the emotional roller-coaster that I went through, at the end of that deal, certainly you are thinking, " 'Maybe I should just retire,' "Brown said at the news conference announcing his signing. "But somebody told me, 'You feel that now, but Monday you are going to be mad and you are going to be ready to go.' That's pretty much how it went. By the time the weekend was over, I had a little steam coming out of my ears and I was ready to get back involved and do what I do on the football field."