Neil Austrian, president of the NFL since 1991, resigned yesterday to pursue what were described as other business opportunities, including possible employment by one of the major broadcast networks.

According to league sources, Austrian, 59, with an extensive background in advertising, television and investment banking, had informed league officials several months ago that he was planning to leave. He is not expected to be replaced, and all departments that reported to him will now report to Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Austrian was the league's No. 2 executive behind Tagliabue and was deeply involved in negotiations that culminated with a record $17.6 billion, eight-year television contract three years ago. The agreement is in place through 2005, and with a labor agreement that won't expire for at least four more years, Austrian said it was a good time to consider other opportunities.

"The timing of my departure works well for the league and for me personally," he told Bloomberg News.

In recent weeks, Austrian had raised some eyebrows in network television circles when it became known that he was listed as the chairman of the board of a new Internet venture, iWon.com, that has since been purchased by CBS Corp., one of the NFL's broadcast partners.

The league has always prohibited its executives from becoming involved in outside businesses that presented any appearance of a conflict of interest. In recent weeks, several network executives told The Post they were surprised to hear of Austrian's involvement with the Internet search directory, mostly because of its tie to CBS.

Austrian and other league officials said he had no day-to-day involvement with the company started by a former intern in the NFL offices who Austrian had mentored over the last 10 years. Austrian said he had simply been an investor, providing seed money for the start-up, and had no role in CBS purchasing the company last month.

League sources said yesterday that Austrian definitely was not leaving the NFL to join iWon.com, which hopes to rival Internet companies such as AOL and Netscape by providing cash bonuses as an inducement to attract widespread use and attract potential advertisers.

Those sources also indicated that Austrian has had discussions with at least one major network. He came to the NFL after a stint as CEO of Showtime cable.

49ers Fallout

According to Coach Steve Mariucci, his San Francisco 49ers "are in a place we've never been before"--reeling after three straight losses, the team's longest losing streak since 1980. And it's unknown when, or if, quarterback Steve Young--still out with a concussion--can come to the rescue.

Still, conventional NFL wisdom is that the 49ers are paying the price for all that salary cap wheeling and dealing to keep the dynasty alive in the early '90s.

The 49ers are 3-4 and below .500 in October for the first time since 1991. The cap came into effect in 1994, and because the 49ers were an elite team, they paid dearly to keep many of their best players on the roster, especially on offense. At the same time, promising players became eligible for free agency left.

Ed McCaffrey once was a 49er. So was Wesley Walls. Both went on to become Pro Bowl players for other teams. On defense, players such as Dana Stubblefield, Pierce Holt, Eric Davis and Ted Washington departed for more lucrative offers from other teams.

In February, the 49ers found themselves $28 million over the cap and started jettisoning players who helped them to a 12-4 regular season record and the NFC championship game last year. A total of 22 players from last year's team are no longer on the roster, many of them because of cap considerations.

"You never felt something like this could ever happen," 49ers middle linebacker Ken Norton said after the team's 40-16 loss to Minnesota on Sunday. "The mystique is over. We can't live off that anymore. Now we've got to play."

Mostly, they've got to score on offense. In the last three games, the defense has four touchdowns, the offense only two.

More on Deion

Hard to believe that Dallas Cowboys Coach Chan Gailey didn't know that cornerback Deion Sanders had not been cleared to play by the team medical staff until Sanders had finished off the Redskins with a 70-yard punt return midway through the fourth quarter.

Gailey acknowledged his medical staff told him in the second quarter that Sanders suffered a concussion on a hit by Redskin Dan Turk returning a punt.

At his news conference Monday, Gailey said he didn't recall who told him Sanders wasn't supposed to be playing after the punt return score. But Tuesday's Dallas Morning News quoted trainer Jim Maurer as saying, "We told him [Gailey] that he [Sanders] was out from the moment he got hit until halftime."

Maurer said the medical staff re-evaluated Sanders at halftime, but declined to say what the recommendation was.

After the game, running back Emmitt Smith told reporters that Sanders had gone onto the field despite Maurer telling an equipment man not to bring Sanders's helmet out because he wouldn't be playing anymore. But Sanders had his own helmet and went out on his own.

Said team owner Jerry Jones, "The circumstances in every case are different. There are no cookie-cutter cases. . . . He was aware of the advice the doctors and trainers were giving him and he was very aware of what was going on. There was concern, but he felt comfortable. It was his decision."

Still, there's no question, according to Sanders's own statements, that the Cowboys allowed a player who may not have known where he was to make the choice to play.

Jones, Snyder Dine

In addition to inviting Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder to the Cowboys' Valley Ranch headquarters for a long meeting on Friday, Jones hosted a dinner that night for Snyder, his sister Michele and Redskins minority owner Fred Drasner.

Jones admires Snyder, a man he described in an interview last week as "spunky." He also related a story about Snyder a few hours before the teams played in the season opener at Redskins Stadium.

Snyder came over to the Dallas sideline to greet Jones during the pregame warm-ups. Nearby, Sanders, then nursing a sore toe, was in sweats and cleats trying to determine if he could play that day. Jones said he asked Snyder if he would like to meet Sanders, but was immediately told "not on a game day."

"Now what does that tell you about how competitive he is?" Jones said.