Resolution must be reached soon to preserve full preseason
By: Albert Breer
The clock continues to tick. And the NFL and players continue to work.
With the St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears -- the participants in this year's scheduled Hall of Fame Game -- scheduled to open training camp just three weeks from Friday, time is beginning to run short for negotiating teams as they look to preserve the preseason in its traditional form. The two sides return to the bargaining table later this week for a fifth round of "secret talks."
The league and players have spent a total of nine days in four different locations -- suburban Chicago, New York's Long Island, Maryland's Eastern Shore and suburban Boston -- during this phase of negotiations. They've also communicated away from the table, and one source has said that about five hours of work goes into every hour of face-to-face talks.
The parties broached the rookie pay system Thursday for the first time during these clandestine sessions, and it proved to be a difficult area to navigate. Last year's No. 1 overall draft pick, Rams quarterback Sam Bradford, received about $50 million guaranteed in his rookie deal, and the owners have long looked to drastically mark down those type of price tags.
But the numbers aren't the only issues. Among the players' concerns are finding a way to replace the effect such contracts have on the veteran market, and also get those high picks to free agency quicker (as it stands, six-year contracts are allowable for the high first-round picks making big money).
The sides have largely spent the last four weeks discussing the revenue split, an issue that dwarfs all others. And it's not just the revenue now, but also how to account for the league's future growth, particularly when the 2014 television deals are done.
Last week, one team executive told NFL Network the league and players are within "striking distance" of a deal, but that nothing was close or imminent. But another involved exec said: "There are enough legitimate issues to where it could all fall down still. They're dealing with that stuff."
After last week's meeting at a beachside resort in Hull, Mass., NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith emerged together and provided a symbolic moment in the joined effort toward a resolution.
"Someone asked me if I was optimistic -- I think we're both optimistic when we have the right people in the room," Smith said. "We know we're talking about the right issues, and we're working hard to get it done. It's extremely complicated. It requires a lot of hard work by a lot of people. But we're committed to getting something done. And we're going to keep working at it."
Smith and Goodell have been joined by Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, New York Giants owner John Mara, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, New York Jets fullback Tony Richardson, Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth and Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday, as well as U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan (who's overseeing the talks), as constants in the room.
Some internal deadlines have July 15 as the date a deal needs to be done to save the preseason in its natural form. At any rate, the sides are working against time now.
"We are under court order, as far as what we can discuss," Goodell said Thursday. "Obviously we're all working hard, the players and owners were here over the last few days, and (Smith) and I were here for the entire meetings also. And it's complicated and it's complex, but we're working hard. We understand the fans' frustration, but I think both of us feel strongly that we're going to continue to work hard on it."
In mid-June, a source with intimate knowledge of the NFL labor negotiations told me a settlement before the start of the season was nearly a forgone conclusion. He was so enthused by the progress being made he said a deal could be hammered out with plenty of time for free agency (albeit slightly rushed) before the scheduled opening of training camps next month.
Well, Thursday is June 30 and the owners and the players continue to display new reasons to believe that initial, ambitious timeline is still possible. June 30 seems a bit optimistic at this point, but July 4 for a new labor deal? On America’s birthday can America get the gift of a return of America’s game? Maybe. Maybe not. Just know this: If not by Monday, then there are few signs it’ll be much longer.
Lawyers for both sides are in the middle of a scheduled three-day session in Minnesota, with a willingness to carry over until Friday, according to NFL Network. Actual owners and players were out of the room through Wednesday, a sign, perhaps, that it was just the details that needed hashing out.
According to various published reports, select owners and players, not to mention NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith, will join the session Thursday, perhaps even a better sign. The lawyers probably aren’t calling back their clients for bad news.
A month ago the NFL labor situation was full of doom and gloom predictions of a long, hot summer that would threaten the Sept. 8 start to the season.
Now everyone is fairly confident, even if the public relations plan remains to downplay talk of impending deals.
If the lockout ends soon, the NFL will have solved its four-plus month labor dispute with the sole casualties being some organized team activities and rookie camps. If so, it won’t be long until this entire ordeal will soon be forgotten. Really the sides have until July 15 to reach a deal and not have any noticeable, tangible impact on the season. That would allow a frenzied 8-10 day free-agent period before the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams have to start camp for the Aug. 7 Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio. The other 30 teams would begin training camp about a week later.
If anything, the condensed schedule with teams making major additions right on the eve of camp should increase interest for the season. Leave it to the NFL to find a marketing surge out of this. Of course, the two sides have to get there still. Whether we can get a holiday weekend announcement is uncertain. Progress is likely ebbing and flowing by the minute. The signs, however, are all there. The aforementioned source believes the financial breakdown is all but settled, which would remove the biggest obstacle to a solution.
Goodell and Smith appeared together Wednesday at the NFL Players Association’s rookie symposium in Sarasota, Fla., and were so cheery they not only had breakfast together but held a joint news conference.
“I am thrilled Roger could come down with us and talk to the rookies in a very good, direct way,” Smith said.
Roger is currently locking out Smith’s rookies, mind you.
Each man knows that if this falls through now, he’ll be scalded with criticism, which is just one more reason to believe it won’t.
DeMaurice Smith (right) and Roger Goodell enjoy a light moment in Florida on Wednesday.
How this went from bleak to bright so quickly likely won’t be told until it’s over and the court’s gag order is lifted.
If the NFL returns while you’re enjoying long weekend cookouts though, feel free to raise a toast to Kermit Bye, the presiding judge of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.
Bye stepped up as the legal wrangling was getting out of hand. Both sides were saying they needed to see where the Brady v. NFL antitrust suit was headed before assessing who would gain leverage in negotiations. On June 3, Bye strongly encouraged the two sides to reach an agreement outside of the court system, warning that if left in the hand of judges the result may be something neither side would find agreeable.
“That’s when the sides got real with each other,” the aforementioned source said two-plus weeks ago. “When the deadline loomed large, they started to work on the real issues.”
There is clearly work to be done and issues to be addressed. One potential wrench in the system is addressing the concerns of retired players, who through Hall of Famer Carl Eller became a party in the Brady lawsuit. No, the NFL isn’t back yet.
Hope reigns, though. They’re in the red zone. Goodell and Smith are smiling in Florida. The lawyers are holed up in Minnesota working. Everyone is saying nice things for a change. Maybe, just maybe, here comes a deal, born by the Fourth of July.
I'm getting to that age where a lifetime warranty just doesn't mean as much to me anymore as an afternoon nap.
Honey Badger Don't Care. Honey Badger Don't Give a Shit.
This is certainly a lot of speculation at this point, but I like the semi-positive airs being shared in this piece. Today is June 30, and we still don't have a deal in place. The next possible date is July 4 as the article(s) state. If we get a deal that day, people in modern and postmodern times may come to know Independence Day as the day football was saved as much as it is a holiday celebrating the birth of our great republic.