Mike Williams's supporters had been prepared to make one final push to get the standout wide receiver into the NFL this season via a supplemental draft if the University of Southern California's application on his behalf to have his college football eligibility restored was rejected by the NCAA.

But that was before the NCAA took months to decide the case, finally denying the request on Thursday, two days before USC's season opener game against Virginia Tech at FedEx Field and two weeks before the beginning of the NFL's regular season.

Williams's former agent, Michael Azzarelli, previously had said that Williams was ready to launch a last-minute bid to try to get into the NFL this season if his attempt to return to college football failed. Williams had filed and then quickly withdrawn one lawsuit against the NFL just after the decision by a federal appeals court in New York that kept him out of the draft in April, and he had another lawsuit prepared. Or those in the Williams camp perhaps could have tried to enlist the support of NFL Players Association chief Gene Upshaw, who had expressed sympathy for Williams's plight despite his backing for the rule that bars a player from entering the league until three years after high school. Upshaw might have been asked to appeal to NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to see if something could have been done for Williams because of the unique circumstances in his case.

But with the NFL season so close, Williams's supporters say they have abandoned those plans, and Upshaw said by telephone Thursday night that it was the right decision.

"People are already getting cut," Upshaw said. "Training camps have been open for a long time. There's no way the NFL would change their position at this point. I feel bad for him. I've said that from the beginning."

Williams's supporters were incensed at the NCAA, for the length of the deliberation process as much as for the verdict.

USC Coach Pete Carroll said, according to a written statement released by the school: "It's hard for me to understand how the NCAA can be so insensitive to wait this long when we are an hour from getting on the plane. . . . I'm not surprised by it, but I'm disappointed for Mike and his family. You'll have to go and ask the NCAA for answers, how they can turn someone down who is otherwise academically eligible. They flatly denied him with an attitude from the beginning and the timing is really, really terrible."

Todd Dickey, USC's vice president and general counsel, said in the statement: "We asked the NCAA at the beginning of this process when we initially submitted the reinstatement request to tell us if the nature of Mike's amateurism violations -- his declaring for the draft, signing with an agent and receiving benefits from an agent -- were so serious that it was not going to be possible for them to rule in his favor. We asked them to let us know up front if this was a problem so that we could spare Mike, his family and the university from all the press attention, the long wait, the heartache, that a long, drawn-out process would entail if they knew reinstatement was going to be denied.

"Instead," Dickey said, "the NCAA put us through days of further work answering supplemental requests, and searching the country for back-up documentation. They encouraged us to follow through with every detail concerning the reinstatement request, leading us to believe they were serious about Mike's potential for reinstatement -- that all of the documentation and details were important and would be significant in the decision-making process. We now believe that the NCAA made up its mind from the very beginning not to [reinstate] Mike."

Williams has little choice now but to wait for next year's NFL draft, for which he is eligible. Most people associated with the process will remember him, not former Ohio State tailback Maurice Clarett, as the victim in the ordeal that began with the February ruling by U.S. District Judge Shira A. Scheindlin in Clarett's lawsuit against the NFL that temporarily opened the draft to college freshmen and sophomores and high school players.

Scheindlin ruled that the three-year draft-eligibility requirement violates antitrust laws, rejecting the NFL's argument that the draft rule should be exempt from antitrust scrutiny because it resulted from collective bargaining between the league and the Players Association. The league, believing it had no other choice in the aftermath of Scheindlin's ruling, set a new deadline for previously ineligible players to enter the draft. Williams, who just had helped the Trojans to a share of the national title as a sophomore, initially said he would remain at USC but then changed his mind and entered the draft over the objection of Carroll, the former New York Jets and New England Patriots coach who urged his star receiver to spend one more year in school. Most NFL teams projected him as a first-round draft pick, and some viewed him as a top-10 selection.

But the NFL's request for a stay of Scheindlin's ruling was granted by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit a few days before the draft, keeping Clarett and Williams out of the lottery. Two U.S. Supreme Court justices denied Clarett's application for emergency relief. The NFL promised to allow Clarett and Williams to enter the league via an immediate supplemental draft if Scheindlin's decision was upheld after the draft. But that became unnecessary when the appeals-court judges overturned Scheindlin's ruling, agreeing with the league's arguments even though the draft-eligibility rule does not appear in the collective bargaining agreement. The NFL argued that the rule resulted from collective bargaining because the union did not object to it, and Upshaw has said that the rule will be strengthened by being expressly written into the extension of the labor deal that's currently being negotiated.

"It was the courts," Upshaw said Thursday from California. "The courts said he was eligible, then the courts said he was ineligible. We believe we have a right to make our rules. We believed all along we had that right. The one that had a chance to make all of this right was the NCAA, and they didn't do it. But the courts were the ones that put Mike Williams in this situation, not the NFL. I've been through this with his people for months now.

" . . . When the courts said he was eligible for the draft, we had an obligation to treat him like any other player who was coming into the league. We had to treat him like any other rookie. But I'm listening to the radio and they're talking about who's to blame, the NCAA or the NFL. And I'm thinking, 'There's another party in all of this -- the courts.'"

Clarett's attorney, Alan C. Milstein, has asked the full appeals court to hear Clarett's case, and Clarett could appeal to the Supreme Court. But Clarett, like Williams, is eligible for the April 2005 NFL draft, so his legal maneuvers are growing increasingly meaningless. The NFL has scored a major legal triumph in its bid to keep itself from going the way of the NBA, with the level of play being watered down by teenage players entering the league. A person close to Clarett said recently that the tailback likely will sit out this season and wait for next year's draft, when NFL teams will have to try to evaluate him after two seasons out of organized football and Williams after one season off.

Azzarelli said when Williams was kept out of this year's draft that the NFL should have treated Williams's case separately from Clarett's because the league, in effect, invited Williams to enter the draft by setting a new deadline after Scheindlin's ruling. NFL officials say they merely were complying with Scheindlin's decision and they told those in Williams's camp all along that they'd keep Williams out of the draft if they were able to reverse the Clarett ruling. Azzarelli also initially faulted the union for failing to support Williams's bid to enter the league.

Williams said in a conference call with reporters when he entered the draft that he had made an adult decision and would live with the outcome as an adult, even if the NFL managed to overturn the Clarett decision and keep him out of the draft. Still, Williams's supporters thought the NCAA had a chance to emerge as the good guy for a change in a case with highly unusual circumstances and the organization missed its chance for some rare positive publicity.

Williams severed his ties to Azzarelli and said he repaid the agent as part of his reinstatement attempt. He attended summer school at USC and participated in some preseason practices. But the NCAA ruled that Williams was ineligible to return to college football both because he no longer is an amateur athlete and because he had not made sufficient progress toward a degree.

"Either one was sufficient to prohibit participation in competition," the NCAA said in a written statement released Thursday night. "In this case, neither obstacle could be cleared."

The academic part of the ruling was based on a rule, according to USC, that would have required Williams to pass six credits in last spring's semester, which Williams instead spent readying for the draft.

"It is ironic that the NCAA failed to grant a degree-progress waiver when Mike not only met, but exceeded, all the NCAA degree-progress requirements except the new rule that requires six units be passed in the immediately preceding regular term," Dickey said. "We believe there were exceptional mitigating circumstances surrounding his withdrawing from school during the spring semester and we do not believe the purpose or rationale" for the six-credit rule being applied to Williams.

Cowboys, NFL Think Carter Case Now Irrelevant

The Dallas Cowboys and the NFL believe the union's challenge to league special master Stephen B. Burbank is irrelevant now that quarterback Quincy Carter has signed with the Jets, said a source who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing.

The union is charging the Cowboys with wrongful termination for releasing Carter, their incumbent starter, on Aug. 4 and could seek reinstatement and back pay for Carter from Burbank, the University of Pennsylvania law professor in charge of resolving disputes arising from the collective bargaining agreement.

The league and the Cowboys believe that reinstatement and back pay are no longer issues, the source said. Carter's one-year contract with the Jets is worth $555,000, including a $455,000 salary and $100,000 in signing and roster bonuses, and contains nearly $3 million in possible incentives. He reportedly already received a $260,000 roster bonus from the Cowboys this year and would have had a salary of $455,000 this season if he'd remained with the team.

But Carter's contract in Dallas was to run through the 2005 season, in which he would have had a salary of $540,000 and reportedly could have received a reporting bonus of $472,100. So, in the union's view, issues of potential lost income remain to be resolved, the source said. The union also is leaving open the option that if it wins the case after Carter's contractual obligation to the Jets is completed, he could have the option of being reinstated to the Cowboys if he wishes, the source said.

According to the source, the league also maintains that the case should be taken away from Burbank and put under the jurisdiction of a normal arbitrator because it is essentially just a non-injury grievance. The union filed the case with Burbank because the collective bargaining agreement bars a team from releasing a player due to a failed drug test. Carter reportedly had a recent violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy.

A special master case is a trial-like proceeding in which the union can conduct depositions of Cowboys officials and explore the initial media reports that the team administered the drug test that Carter failed. Individual clubs are prohibited by the collective bargaining agreement from conducting drug tests on their players, and Cowboys officials told representatives of the league that they don't administer such tests.

Raiders Hope To See Woodson Monday

The Oakland Raiders hope that cornerback Charles Woodson, their exclusive franchise player who has been absent from training camp in a contract dispute, reports to the club Monday. . . .

The Jacksonville Jaguars are elevating wide receiver Reggie Williams, the ninth overall pick in the draft, to the starting lineup for tonight's exhibition game against Green Bay, ahead of Troy Edwards. . . .

Agent Ken Kremer was in the New York area yesterday for talks with Jets officials on a pending contract extension for quarterback Chad Pennington. Kremer is an associate of Tom Condon at IMG Football in Kansas City, Mo. The two sides are trying to complete a deal for Pennington, probably with more than $20 million in bonus money, by the Sept. 1 deadline established by Pennington's camp to cut off negotiations until after the season if there's no agreement. Pennington is entering the final season of his current contract and is eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring, although the Jets likely would use their franchise-player tag to keep him off the market if they can't sign him to an extension. . . .

Quarterback Philip Rivers is scheduled to make his preseason debut for the San Diego Chargers tonight against Seattle in relief of Drew Brees. Rivers, the fourth overall choice in the draft, has had only three days of practices since ending a lengthy contract dispute by signing a six-year, $40.5 million deal. . . .

The New England Patriots released wide receiver J.J. Stokes. . . . The Jaguars signed veteran place kicker Steve Christie to compete with rookie Josh Scobee, a fifth-round pick from Louisiana Tech who has missed three of four field goal attempts in the preseason. . . .

Veteran quarterback Tommy Maddox had another brief but solid showing for the Pittsburgh Steelers in Thursday night's 27-21 triumph at Philadelphia and seems to be holding off the challenge of prized rookie Ben Roethlisberger for the club's starting job. Steelers tailback Duce Staley, who left the Eagles via free agency in the offseason, rushed for 37 yards and a touchdown in his return to Philadelphia. After his touchdown, Staley handed the ball to a young fan in the stands wearing a Donovan McNabb jersey. . . .

The Eagles withheld tailback Brian Westbrook from the game so he wouldn't risk getting hurt, and backup Reno Mahe helped his cause by rushing for 49 yards on 10 carries. . . .

San Francisco 49ers officials intend to evaluate quarterback Tim Rattay during pregame warmups and decide then whether to use him in tonight's game at Minnesota. Rattay, the team's would-be starter, has been suffering from a sore arm in training camp as he tries to return for offseason surgery to repair a torn groin muscle. If Rattay doesn't play, the 49ers could start Brandon Doman, with Ken Dorsey bothered by a back problem.