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Holding out hope that a new CBA is reached in near future

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I can't help but be enthused by the ongoing dialogue between the NFL and its players' union.

Sure, I should know better than to try to characterize something as fluid, and potentially combustible, as real-time collective bargaining negotiations continue. And of course I realize that, until a new CBA is reached, then nothing really matters, and any potential gains made yesterday don't guarantee anything today. I get all of that.

But I'm also a rabid football fan who is emotionally invested in the outcome of these talks, and I can't help but get a little excited by the current tenor and pace of negotiations. Yet I am rational enough to fear how barren and cold the coming month could be if these entities can't manage to meld an agreement by the end of next week. It's a balancing act, for sure, of tempered expectations and restrained optimism, but my overriding sense remains that there are too many "super-smart" -- to use a term Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs used to toss around -- and mega-rich people on both ends of this argument to truly threaten the 2011 season. Or so I keep telling myself.

The mere fact they're talking to each other -- and not the media so much -- is a meaningful first step.

Remember just two weeks back, when left to their own devices, the NFL and NFLPA couldn't get through one seven-hour session without bogging down in another stalemate and canceling talks? Remember back in mid February, the war of words -- being fought in dueling press conferences and press releases and Twitter feeds -- was still raging?

Now, thankfully, we bask in radio silence.

No sound bytes or tweets or shots across the bow from either party. No leaks, either. Now, both sides are truly adhering to the code of silence installed by George Cohen, the esteemed federal mediator assigned to this whopper of a case in an attempt to broker a deal before next Thursday turns to Friday. Now, both sides are have been meeting for seven-to-eight hours daily, dating back to last Friday, with this week of mediation set to expire Thursday evening.

You can't tell me there aren't some gains being made, that there hasn't been some thawing on an issue or two. Human nature alone would dictate that if you are spending that much time in a room with a group to which you are in many ways philosophically opposed, you wouldn't keep banging your head against the wall day after day unless there was some give somewhere.

Cohen's presence is critical. Trust has always been the biggest fissure to me between the owners and players this time around, since the first negotiation between commissioner Roger Goodell and union chief DeMaurice Smith. More than revenue splits and salary cap figures and any of the myriad and dizzying numbers involved in this complex negotiation, it's a lack of trust that I believe has stalled these talks.

The owners have been, in essence, asking for give-backs from the players in terms of an additional billion dollars in cap credits from revenues, pitching them on the idea that this money will be re-invested in the game, will grow revenues for everyone, and thus the pool of money going to the employees will continue to grow, even if their percentage share is not as large. They're also asking the players to trust that their health will be better tended to in an 18-game season.

All of that requires a significant showing of faith, which brings us back to the NFLPA's fundamental request that owners open their books to prove it to the players' liking. They want to see it with their own eyes. The emotional buy-in hasn't been there, with both sides raising some valid arguments, but a requisite partnership is still missing.

And that's where Cohen comes in.

NFLPA leader DeMaurice Smith (right) talks with media members Wednesday prior to labor talks in Washington D.C.
NFLPA leader DeMaurice Smith (right) talks with media members Wednesday prior to labor talks in Washington D.C. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

He is respected by both sides and doesn't have an agenda. His job is to massage them towards a deal that will make sense for both parties. In many ways, I'm hopeful he could be a broker of trust if nothing else. Getting this thing solved this week was always going to be ambitious, but if he can hit fast forward on the trust remote, create a bit more common ground, extol the virtues of some platforms from each proposal to the other party, then we're already at a more advanced stage than we've been for the past 20 months.

From talking to people on both parties prior to the start of mediation last week, I can assure you I was not feeling very warm and fuzzy about its prospects. While both the NFL and NFLPA were clearly open to the process, there wasn't an overwhelming sense that much was going to change. In fact, the view was pretty pragmatic and subdued from both sides. There was even skepticism about getting through seven days in the same room, and both sides acknowledged that if they weren't playing fair, then Cohen wouldn't end up handing over a week of his valuable time. Both parties came in with a measured approach.

Let's see if we get through a few hours before we start talking about seven entire days, they seemed to be whispering.

Internally, you could have found people in both camps who would have set the over/under on the length of these talks at three days. If nothing else, the past week has displayed that, with some guidance, the league and players can sustain a meaningful dialogue in the prolonged manner required to ultimately result in a new deal. Heck, they've managed to agree on what to gorge on for lunch for the better part of a week straight (as witnessed by our man-on-the-corner at the meetings in Washington, D.C., Albert Breer). That has to count for something.

I'm calling it "Hoagie Diplomacy." And I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it carries over into next week. Because regardless of all Cohen accomplishes with this group by Thursday's final session, a deal, if one is reached, is going to come in the hours leading up to March 4. That's simply how it works (And I'm also hoping that Cohen's schedule might have an opening or two late next week to help further cajole us to labor peace, if at all possible).

I imagine he has already coaxed both sides into putting a few more cards on the table and sustained more of a healthy back-and-forth exchange of ideas. But until that deadline is looming over everyone, and until some real financial ramifications are on the horizon, there is still a certain amount of bluffing involved.

We won't know what is fully on the table until it's time to play that final hand as midnight approaches. Heck, the very men involved most directly in the process couldn't tell you what a final best offer would look like until negotiations reach that stage.

I also can't help thinking that the fact the sides were able to get through a week together as they have -- even pushing back non-related important meetings to do so -- bodes well for an extension of the talks themselves, if need be. As in, should the clock be about to strike midnight, turning March 3 into March 4, and a deal not yet finalized, that rather than the owners leaping into lockout mode or the union launching into possible decertification, that if nothing else this week has shown them that agreeing to push back the deadline by a few days, or even a week, to continue talks would be in the best interest of all parties -- in particular the fans, who should be the most important silent partner in all of this.

Because, folks, if we don't have a deal in early March, I'm not sure when one is going to come. My conversations with officials on both sides over the past few months have left me convinced that if we are at loggerheads or in a lockout in March, then the incentives to stay at the table will be scant.

If anything, I envision a March without a CBA being an NFL wasteland -- no negotiations, no free agency, no offseason workout programs, nothing -- with the sides likely not even trying to restart talks until a few weeks prior to the NFL draft. And even then, a draft deadline would be hollow. Some sponsors and advertisers would have pulled out of deals for 2011. More players would still be waiting on spring bonuses due to them, to say nothing of the lack of free agency, but the draft, in and of itself, I can't see being the financial impetus to a deal.

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If anything, I'd expect more rhetoric around the draft. I'd expect the union to boycott the event at Radio City Music Hall entirely, with no players present. I'd expect a heavy amount of fan chanting and discontent from the rafters, but not enough to chill ratings or interest.

No, if we don't get a deal sometime around March 4, then I'm not sure when the next hard-and-fast deadline comes, or if there even is one. Some would say the next key date would be the start of training camp, but that's an arbitrary date which differs by team. Having a lockout during Hall of Fame inductions would be a PR blunder to say the least, but any prolonged labor strife is, in and of itself, a marketing and PR nightmare, particularly for parties enjoying such robust lifestyles at a time of economic hardship for most of America.

The start of the regular season would be a massive flashpoint for sure, but even then, getting a deal done just before kickoff is hardly ideal, because you would still need weeks to sort out the new CBA, have a free agency period, and have some semblance of training camp before you could play real games. What is the cutoff point to get a deal done but still have a 16-game season? What about to get a deal done but still play a truncated 12-game season? And could the sides even agree on those cutoff points so that either arbitrary date would serve as a real enough incentive to kick-start hardcore negotiating?

It's all too much uncertainty for me. Things will only get even murkier post-March 4 unless we have a deal. The billion-dollar game of chicken only intensifies. The fans lose. The cumulative toll of day after day of labor unrest will be a pox on both the NFL and NFLPA. No one will win.

It's a risk never worth taking, and so I cling to the belief that cooler heads and smarter minds ultimately will prevail.

How is Haynesworth still a Redskin?

I'm still waiting for someone to explain to me why, with teams trimming the excess from their payrolls, Albert Haynesworth remains a Washington Redskin? How could it not be abundantly clear to anyone involved in this situation that it's over for him in D.C.? He will never help them win football games, and the last 12 months have served only to further diminish whatever trade value he once had.

For more on the Washington Redskins, check out the latest from our bloggers.

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The time to take a mid-round pick was a year ago. The Redskins opted not to, and in the meantime served as the stage for one of the biggest sideshows in the NFL, which continues to this day with recent allegations of road rage and that he inappropriately touched a waitress. Haynesworth denies any misconduct in either situation, but as one person close to him put it, "It's become pretty obvious Albert is a target there."

The entire situation is a mess, and it's not going away. Sure, the Redskins would have to eat another $5 million in guaranteed salary to release him, but when you agree to a contract this flawed you have to take your lumps and move on at some point for the greater good of your team. Again, a mid-round pick wasn't good enough for the Redskins heading into the 2010 draft, and to think you would get anything higher than a fifth rounder now is folly.

I understand the desire to move that contract and let someone else assume the guaranteed portions after giving Haynesworth $21 million last season for, in essence, nothing, but demand is limited. It was obvious during OTAs last spring that he was never going to be a functioning part of the program, yet Mike Shanahan kept the circus in town, replete with weekly incidents.

Washington's defense aches for adequate parts to fit Shanahan's desire for a 3-4 scheme. They need a legit nose tackle, another end, an outside linebacker, and fortification at corner and free safety. What they don't need is another year of Haynesworth distractions trumping any gains they make.

Franchise tag update

The period to franchise and transition players comes to an end Thursday afternoon, and while most of the action has already transpired, a few more moves could take place.

» As we have been reporting, if the Jags can't get a long-term deal with TE Marcedes Lewis by then, they will franchise him and continue negotiations aimed at a longer deal.

» The Raiders could still opt to franchise TE Zach Miller.

» The Steelers could transition CB Ike Taylor.

» It's highly unlikely the 49ers will franchise DT Aubrayo Franklin for a second straight year, according to league sources.

» It's also unlikely Packers DL Cullen Jenkins or Bengals RB Cedric Benson gets the tag.

Follow Jason La Canfora on Twitter @JasonLaCanfora

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