SPARTANBURG -- Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney and lead negotiator Rob Rogers huddled near the corner of a practice field Thursday, passing a cell phone between them in what was obviously a conversation of some importance. Then Hurney walked onto the field and talked to coach John Fox.
Something was up.
The problem for the Panthers was that it wasn't the big thing that's been hanging over their heads since they came to training camp.
They were huddling about the just-completed trade for Chicago safety Chris Harris, not a deal for absentee linebacker Jon Beason.
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The first-round pick's holdout appears no closer to being settled than it was when the Panthers reported to Wofford College last week.
The principals in the case have stopped talking, with Hurney refusing to comment on negotiations since his "miles apart" declaration of a week ago, and agent Michael Huyghue not making a peep since this week's public relations offensive.
All Hurney would say was there's a reason he's been quiet, because he doesn't want to jeopardize the long-term relationship they still hope to have with the Miami linebacker, who they took with the 25th overall pick in this year's draft.
"We've always made it a point not to talk about negotiations," Hurney said. "Because if you're having a negotiation, it's either with someone you drafted or someone you want to sign, so obviously you hold those people in high regard.
"In my opinion, I just don't think it's the right thing to do, out of respect for the player."
Specifics have been few regarding the Beason situation, but this much we know -- the talks have broken down not over the amount of money he wants, but over when and how he gets it.
This year, many first-rounders have signed deals which include second-year option bonuses, and those are what the Panthers object to. They won't give them out -- and they haven't -- because they can no longer recoup any of them if the players holds out at a later date or othewise defaults on the deal.
Many first rounders have some form of non-refundable option bonus, but other agents disagree about the importance.
Player representative Rick Smith, who has done a number of deals with the Panthers, said that shouldn't be enough to keep a player out of camp. Smith's biggest deal was for Jake Delhomme, and he said the Panthers rejected a few of his proposals on similar principles, but he still was able to hammer out a six-year, $38 million extension in 2004, which included $12.1 million in guaranteed bonuses.
Smith also did the deal for San Francisco tackle Joe Staley, one of the first first-rounders to sign this year. It had an option bonus the second year, but Smith said that wouldn't have slowed him down if the 49ers would have refused it.
"The bottom line is the Panthers are the most reasonable team in the league," Smith said. "If the team says they absolutely won't do something, you might ask one time or two times, but once they dig their heels in, your job for your client is the figure out a way to get him into camp."
The Panthers are hammered in league circles for overpaying, since they've been aggressive players in free agency and proactive in keeping their core together. One agent who didn't want to be named said part of the reason the Panthers are often mentioned as potential landing spots for high-profile players (even ones they don't want), is due to their free-spending past.
He pointed to the $6 million they gave wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson for one year's work as an example of their willingness to move quickly and decisively, in giving out deals and getting out of them.
Smith said other teams have similar policies. Dallas won't write a contract with escalator clauses, which raise future payments if players hit certain performance benchmarks.
Since option bonuses became perilous for teams, the Panthers have done five multi-year extensions or deals for free agents or their own players (Steve Smith, Jason Baker, David Carr, Jeremy Bridges and Nick Goings). None have option bonuses, according to multiple league sources.
Smith's six-year, $45 million extension provided $17.3 million in guaranteed bonuses, but they were split between a $9 million signing bonus and roster/reporting bonuses in 2008 and 2009.
A prorated portion of each could theoretically be claimed back if Smith held out or defaulted on his contract.
It's also not that the Panthers have pre-judged Beason to be a character concern, since they investigated him prior to the draft and came away convinced his amateur rap videos and school of choice made him no more a risk than any other player.
But the immediate problem for the Panthers is they need him.
With projected starting weakside linebacker Na'il Diggs out with a hamstring pull, Beason would have been getting work Thursday with the starters. Instead, they're scrambling for replacements, switching positions for other players and making do the best they can.
The worst-case scenario is Beason would go unsigned and enter next year's draft, which would hurt double since the Panthers had a chance to parlay this year's first rounder into Cleveland's likely-to-be-good 2008 first-rounder. The Browns were desperate to land quarterback Brady Quinn, but the Panthers held on to get Beason and Cleveland passed that choice to Dallas instead.
Another agent, who also did not want to be named, said "plenty" of agents were said to have already contacted Beason about dumping Huyghue. If he did, he'd have to wait five days to sign with another, per NFL Players Association guidelines. That might not particularly help, since another week of missed time might effectively torpedo any good chance he'd have to get caught up.
And while Smith acknowledged that might be happening, he quickly added, "I hope not, although everybody knows this business has its dirty side.
"But Huyghue's been on the other side of it too, he's negotiated for the Jaguars, he knows how this works," Smith said. "And ultimately, you figure something's going to get done."