DALLAS -- A year ago, days before Super Bowl XLIV, DeMaurice Smith said the odds of NFL owners locking out players in 2011 ranked "14" on a scale of one to 10.
Smith, the NFL Players Association's executive director, wouldn't go there Thursday when asked at his Super Bowl XLV news conference. In fact, his tenor was far more academic but poignant as the labor standoff with NFL owners becomes more tenuous nearing a March 4 deadline.
"Every player and former player on this dais has heard me say and heard our leaders and our representatives tell our players to prepare for the worst even while you're hoping for the best," Smith said.
On more than one occasion, Smith said he has been entrusted by his membership to ensure a "fair" deal is done -- and quickly. Owners also have said they want a deal as soon as possible.
But saying it and hammering out complex economic issues where concessions are needed are two different things. The ramped-up effort to reach a deal does provide optimism at a time when the NFL is set to play its grand game and the sport seems to be at its most popular.
The more-subdued tone follows a recent trend -- Smith did spark some raised eyebrows when, according to a New York Times article, he told new player representatives they were at "war" with league owners -- between the sides. Following a public plea from the NFL's lead negotiator, Jeff Pash, that round-the-clock negotiations are needed to reach a deal soon, the sides plan to increase bargaining sessions and hope to prevent a work stoppage that could lead to missed games in 2011.
The negotiating committees from both sides will meet Saturday in Dallas on the eve of the Super Bowl.
While the issues of an 18-game season, a rookie-wage scale and the division of revenues have been well-documented and again were discussed at Thursday's news conference, the most notable element was tone of the NFLPA's message. Whereas it has been combative and edgy in the past, it's clear the union is more intent on being publicly more businesslike, although the sleeves might be rolled up in negotiating sessions.
If both parties are sincere about this approach, the odds of them reaching a deal in the near future seem more likely.
Smith and NFLPA president Kevin Mawae repeatedly stressed that players want to play, echoing the theme of a broadcast advertisement they've launched. Each stressed that the damage to the game if there was any sort of work stoppage mostly would impact fans and those whose livelihoods, like restaurant owners, would be most affected by labor unrest. Owners have acknowledged that they'd lose hundreds of millions, and players are fearful of losing money and health benefits.
To stress his point about the impact on fans, Mawae, who retired last year after 19 seasons, said playing that long didn't provide the rush that drove him. It was "the 241 times I came through that tunnel and 65,000 fans," cheering for him or rooting against him.
"It's about the fans," Mawae said. "They don't come to watch a shield, they don't come to watch a logo. They come to watch the stars."
Smith and Mawae continued to stress the need for "financial transparency" from owners. The desire to have NFL teams open their financial records has been met by league officials saying the NFLPA has all the financial information it needs to strike a deal that would be fair to both sides.
As for the 18-game schedule, Smith said he's not in favor of anything that could increase the risk of injury and shorten players' careers. That said, it's widely believed that players eventually could agree to a longer season in exchange for more money and more downtime in the offseason. Smith didn't answer if an 18-game schedule is a deal-breaker.
Smith made it clear that the union has an issue with the league's assertion that teams can place franchise tags on players whose contracts are expiring even if no CBA is in place after March 3. The franchise tag allows a team to prevent one player from becoming an unrestricted free agent.
"If there is no CBA, the franchise tags will be meaningless," Smith said.
Mawae also took issue with comments made by New York Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie, a pending free agent who recently said players aren't aware of the issues and need to get a deal done immediately. Mawae said Cromartie has had plenty of opportunity to learn the issues and ask questions of team representatives, and that when all is said and done, he would benefit from a new deal.
Is Mawae concerned that other players will break ranks to speak negatively about the labor situation?
"I represent 1,900 active players and thousands of former players. We're a family," Mawae said. "I have four brothers, my brothers and I fight all the time, we don't get along, but at the end of the day, we're still family. With Cromartie, it's the same way."
Mawae didn't criticize Cromartie, saying he had a right to express his opinion. Mawae also is smart enough to know that if he came off the wrong way at Cromartie, it would show a break in solidarity among players -- especially since Mawae is the NFLPA's president.
In all, not a lot of new information was gleaned from Thursday's news conference, but, as Smith said, that was intentional because those talks will be held with the right people in private. The news was that the NFLPA seems as intent as owners to strike a deal so the final whistle of Sunday's Super Bowl isn't the last sound we hear on the field for a long time.
"Only one side can lock us out," Smith said. "And my sincere hope is that we get a deal done quickly. That's what I've committed our player leaders to do, and they've made it absolutely clear that that's my job, and that's what we're going to do."