It finally will be about football again for Philip Rivers and the San Diego Chargers when the rookie quarterback takes the field for a morning practice today in Carson, Calif. But it's probably too late to do Rivers or the Chargers any good, at least this season.

The Chargers completed a contract agreement with Rivers on Monday night, as General Manager A.J. Smith and agent Jimmy Sexton applied the finishing touches to a six-year deal worth about $40.5 million, including about $14.5 million in bonus money. The deal contains an additional $10 million or so in possible incentives, pushing its prospective total value to more than $50 million.

The team announced late Monday that Rivers was to sign the contract and participate in this morning's practice, and Smith said in a written statement: "This is a fair deal for both Philip and the Chargers. We're just happy to have the negotiations behind us and a bright future ahead for Philip, the Chargers and all Charger fans. We're looking forward to getting him on the field and ready for the 2004 season.''

The problem is, the Chargers have only five more practices -- two today and Wednesday and one on Thursday -- before they're to break camp. They have only two preseason games -- Friday at home against Seattle and Sept. 2 at San Francisco -- before their Sept. 12 regular-season opener at Houston.

When the Chargers completed their draft-day trade with the New York Giants for Rivers, the fourth overall selection in the draft, Rivers had a legitimate chance to open the season as San Diego's starter. All he had to do was compete on even footing during the preseason with holdovers Drew Brees and Doug Flutie, and Coach Marty Schottenheimer probably would have given him the job. But now Rivers has missed 29 training-camp practices and two exhibition games. He has been absent too long to have any realistic chance of starting any time soon, and he could lose a full year in his development process if Schottenheimer doesn't turn to him at any point during the season.

The Giants faced plenty of salary-cap obstacles to signing top overall draft choice Eli Manning after obtaining the quarterback in the Rivers trade, which was made after the Manning camp informed the Chargers that Manning wouldn't play in San Diego.

But Giants General Manager Ernie Accorsi worked through the difficulties with agent Tom Condon and crafted a complex six-year, $45 million contract (including $20 million in bonus money) that got Manning to training camp on time. Manning has looked poised and in command of the offense during preseason games, and he could open the season as the Giants' starter ahead of veteran Kurt Warner. The Giants probably would take their lumps this season if they go with Manning, but enduring his youthful mistakes now would put them that much further ahead of Rivers and the Chargers by the time next season begins.

The Chargers have a recent history of failing to get their prized rookies to camp on time -- tailback LaDainian Tomlinson signed before the final preseason game in 2001 and cornerback Quentin Jammer signed after the first regular season game in 2002 -- and didn't take a particularly urgent approach to the Rivers negotiations, even though they were dealing with a quarterback this time.

Smith alienated Sexton by announcing at one point that Rivers and Sexton had rejected a proposal more lucrative than the contracts signed by second overall pick Robert Gallery and third overall choice Larry Fitzgerald, and saying that future Chargers' offers to Rivers would decrease in value. Sexton replied that the Chargers had mischaracterized their offer because it wasn't more valuable than the Gallery or Fitzgerald deals, and he said that Smith's decision to make a public announcement about the state of the deliberations set back the process. Rivers was the final first-round pick in the league to agree to a contract.

He is regarded by scouts as a quarterback who is polished, for a rookie, and who should be able to pick up an offensive system quickly, and the Chargers certainly aren't enamored with Brees or Flutie. Brees likely will enter the season as the starter, but only by attrition, because of Rivers's contract dispute and Flutie's knee surgery. But Schottenheimer's job security is tenuous and he might be reluctant to turn over his team to a rookie quarterback who will be playing catch-up all season, and now the organization must rebuild its relationship with its would-be franchise quarterback. If Rivers spends the season sitting while Manning is learning, the Chargers could end up regretting the negotiating approach that they took with Rivers for years to come.

Rivers's signing leaves only one draft selection -- second-round safety Bob Sanders, the 44th overall pick by the Indianapolis Colts -- still unsigned.

Jets Sign Carter

The New York Jets signed quarterback Quincy Carter to a one-year contract today, with the former Dallas starter slated to back up Chad Pennington.

The Jets lacked an experienced backup, with Brooks Bollinger and Ricky Ray behind Pennington on the depth chart after the team released veteran Vinny Testaverde in June. Carter had been looking for a job since being abruptly released by the Cowboys on Aug. 4. Most teams with needs at quarterback had been wary of the circumstances surrounding his release by Dallas.

Carter helped the Cowboys to a 10-6 record and a playoff appearance last season and, according to Coach Bill Parcells, was ahead of Testaverde in the competition for the starting job as recently as a few days before he was cut. But he reportedly violated the league's substance-abuse policy and was facing a fine by the NFL, putting him one more violation away from a four-game suspension.

The NFL Players Association filed a challenge to the Cowboys' release of Carter with the league's special master, University of Pennsylvania law professor Stephen B. Burbank, contending that Dallas violated the NFL's collective bargaining agreement because the labor deal prohibits a player from being released due to a failed drug test.

That case is not affected by Carter's signing with the Jets. The union apparently was going to ask Burbank to reinstate Carter and order the Cowboys to reimburse him any back pay. But union officials said when they filed the case that Carter would not be obligated to return to the Cowboys if he had signed with another team by the time the case was resolved. They said they planned to press forward with the case even if Carter signed elsewhere because they wanted to establish that Carter was wrongfully terminated. Union officials wanted to depose Parcells and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones as part of the trial-like special-master case, hoping to determine whether the team was conducting independent drug tests of its players in violation of the sport's labor agreement. There were reports after Carter was released that he'd failed a team-administered test. Cowboys officials told representatives of the league office that they weren't conducting such tests, and Jones has said he's confident that the Cowboys were within their rights in releasing Carter.

Carter met with Jets officials today. He had been working out in Houston with wide receiver Keenan McCardell, who's holding out from training camp in a contract dispute with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

McCardell Remains On Hold

McCardell's contract stare-down with the Buccaneers shows no signs of ending any time soon. The Buccaneers haven't spoken with agent Gary Uberstine about McCardell's contract since Father's Day, and the club is sticking to its position that McCardell should play under the terms of a contract that pays him $2.5 million this season and $2.75 million next season. The team says it is paying McCardell, 34, as much as it reasonably can pay a player his age. McCardell maintains that he has outperformed his contract after catching 84 passes for 1,174 yards and eight touchdowns last season, and he wants to earn closer to the $4.4 million average salary of some of the league's top receivers.

The Buccaneers are fining McCardell $5,000 for each day of camp that he misses and have notified him of their intention to try to force him to return a portion of his signing bonus if he doesn't report to the club. McCardell's camp has charged the Buccaneers with violating the collective bargaining agreement by fining McCardell and not fining safety Dwight Smith for missing two days of camp in what McCardell's representatives say was a contract dispute. Smith says he was excused for a personal matter that was not contract-related.

Couch's Roster Spot In Jeopardy

Quarterback Tim Couch's chances of being on the Green Bay Packers' season-opening roster seem to be diminishing. His practice Monday was cut short by lingering arm soreness. The Packers were enamored with the former top overall draft choice in the offseason and signed him to be Brett Favre's top backup, but they are facing a tough decision about whether to keep him with Doug Pederson, Craig Nall and rookie Scott McBrien also vying for two available roster spots. . . .

Would-be starting quarterback Tim Rattay participated in his first full practice with the 49ers in three weeks Monday, but still didn't cut loose with full-speed throws. He has a strained muscle in his forearm as he attempts to return from offseason surgery for a torn groin muscle. . . .

The Carolina Panthers expect to be without starting left guard Tutan Reyes for at least two weeks because of a high ankle sprain. They expect starting right tackle Matt Willig to return sooner from a bruised knee. The defending NFC champions look strong in virtually every other area but are scrambling to avoid being undermined by their rebuilt offensive line . . . .

The Seahawks are down to third-stringer Isaiah Kacyvenski at strong-side linebacker. Starter Chad Brown is slated to miss at least eight weeks because of a broken left fibula, and backup D.D. Lewis is sidelined by a shoulder injury . . . .

The St. Louis Rams expect cornerback Travis Fisher to miss the entire season after he suffered a fractured right arm in Monday night's exhibition defeat at Kansas City in the Missouri Governor's Cup. Fisher made 15 starts last season and tied for the team lead with four interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. The injury is another major blow to a Rams defense that lost coordinator Lovie Smith, who became the head coach of the Chicago Bears, and top pass rusher Grant Wistrom, who signed with Seattle as a free agent, in the offseason. Second-year pro Kevin Garrett likely moves into the starting lineup. . . .

Tailback Marshall Faulk rushed for 16 yards on six carries Monday in his first game action of the preseason. If his knees are up to it, he could step up his activity Friday against the Washington Redskins in the Rams' third preseason game and the Redskins' fourth. . . .

Jets defensive end John Abraham is scheduled to meet with NFL officials Wednesday in New York. A source who spoke this morning on the condition of anonymity, citing the confidentiality of the league's drug-testing program, confirmed reports that Abraham could be facing a fine of more than $340,000 -- equal to four regular season game checks -- for testing positive for alcohol under the league's substance-abuse policy. Abraham is banned from drinking alcohol by the league after pleading guilty last year to driving while impaired. Abraham is contesting the positive test, the source said, and has taken a polygraph test to attempt to bolster his argument. . . .

Detroit released veteran offensive lineman Solomon Page and wide receiver Scotty Anderson. Team president Matt Millen reportedly was referring to Anderson when he questioned the courage of an unnamed Lions player in a 2002 radio interview with former Bears and Saints coach Mike Ditka.

Cowboys To Have Own Channel

The Cowboys are creating their own television channel in conjunction with Comcast, the largest cable provider in the Dallas area. The channel is to carry around-the-clock Cowboys programming. The Cowboys are the second NFL team with their own channel. The Atlanta Falcons started one last year. . . . New Orleans Saints defensive back Keyuo Craver is facing a one-year suspension by the league for a violation of the substance-abuse policy, a source confirmed today. Craver was suspended four games last season. He forfeits his $380,000 salary for this season, and he reportedly cleaned out his locker and left the Saints on Monday. . . . The Colts might keep wide receiver Troy Walters on their 53-man roster, hoping for a late-season return, even though he will be sidelined for about three months after breaking his arm over the weekend.