The NFL Players Association will file a case with the league's special master, Stephen B. Burbank, this afternoon contesting the Dallas Cowboys' release of quarterback Quincy Carter, union officials said.

"We're challenging the Cowboys' grounds for termination of Quincy Carter based on skill and performance," Richard Berthelsen, the union's general counsel, said by telephone early this afternoon. "You don't go from being a starting quarterback on a playoff team to not being one of the top 80 players on the roster."

The union apparently will ask Burbank to order the Cowboys to reinstate Carter and reimburse him any back pay.

The Cowboys released Carter, their incumbent starter entering training camp, on Aug. 4. He reportedly had recently violated the NFL's substance-abuse policy and already was in the program as a result of a previous failed drug test. Carter reportedly was facing a fine equal to four regular-season game checks for his second failed test, and would be suspended for four games by the league if he suffered a third failed test.

The collective bargaining agreement between the league and the Players Association prohibits a player from being released because of a failed drug test. Players can be released because of skill and performance. Berthelsen declined further comment on the specifics of the case, citing the confidentiality of the league's drug-testing program.

Union chief Gene Upshaw previously expressed concerns about reports that the Cowboys were conducting independent drug tests on their players, which is prohibited by the collective bargaining agreement. Berthelsen declined to comment on that issue directly but said: "A whole host of questions will be asked."

A special-master case differs from the league's usual arbitration process and is a trial-like proceeding to resolve disputes arising from the collective bargaining agreement, and allows for discovery of evidence and depositions.

Asked what remedy the union will seek for Carter, who has not signed with another team, Berthelsen said: "The traditional remedy for improper termination is reinstatement and back pay. Often by the time these cases are resolved, a player will have found a new team, and it's not required that an employee would go back [to his previous club] if he prevails."

Burbank, a University of Pennsylvania law professor, was appointed by U.S. District Judge David S. Doty, who oversees the NFL's collective bargaining agreement. Any decision by Burbank is subject to review by Doty.

Burbank's first case as the league's special master came in the

offseason when the union asked him to declare wide receiver Terrell Owens a free agent. Owens and his agent, David Joseph, had missed a February deadline to void the remainder of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers and make him a free agent. The league's Management Council had ruled that Owens remained under contract to the 49ers, who traded him to the Baltimore Ravens. But Owens wanted to go to the Philadelphia Eagles and refused to report to the Ravens, and the union challenged the application of the rules and deadlines being used in recent years to govern the process by which players could void portions of their contracts.

Burbank apparently sided with the union after a hearing in a courtroom at the University of Pennsylvania law school and told the league's lawyers, according to witnesses, that they didn't have much of a case. That produced a quick settlement among the parties in which Owens was placed with the Eagles and signed a new seven-year contract worth nearly $49 million.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said in an interview at the team's training camp in Oxnard, Calif., two days after Carter was released that Carter was cut because of a series of events, not because of a single development, and he was confident that the move would withstand any scrutiny by the league and the union. The Cowboys have told representatives of the league office that they don't conduct independent drug tests of their players. The Cowboys reportedly are attempting to force Carter to return a portion of his signing bonus for failure to live up to the terms of his contract.

Carter, 26, was only the NFC's 11th-rated passer last season but helped the Cowboys to a 10-6 record and a playoff appearance, on the heels of three straight 5-11 seasons, in Bill Parcells's first season as the team's coach. The Cowboys signed veteran quarterback Vinny Testaverde in June and told him that he could compete for the starting job, but Parcells said a few days before Carter was released that Carter remained the front-runner to be the starter.