FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A day after the second set of secret negotiations between the NFL and players wrapped up, one of the parties present at the talks has spoken up.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who's been at all five days of this set of meetings, struck a moderately optimistic tone that the parties would be able to work out their differences, as the lockout nears the three-month mark.
"We're talking now, we're making progress, but there's a lot of work to be done," said Kraft, speaking at the team's annual Community MVP Luncheon. "This is a very hard deal, with all the different variables. In the end, the fact that principles -- who are going to be sitting down across from one another five years, 10 years from now -- are sitting down and talking about the problems is a positive thing. There's a lot of hard work to be done, but the good news is we're talking."
Kraft has had a consistent presence throughout the labor negotiations, taking part in portions of the federal mediation in Washington, D.C. that ran up to the start of the lockout, as well as the court-ordered mediation in April and May in Minneapolis. He's one of three owners -- joined by the Giants' John Mara and the Panthers' Jerry Richardson -- that has been at all of the most recent round of talks, first in suburban Chicago, and then on Long Island.
The Patriots owner thinks the two sides are like-minded and went as far to say NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith is on the same page as far as the long-term interests of the game.
"You have the head of the (NFLPA) and five players, and a mix of different players and the commissioner, all focused on the issues and what's good for the game and trying to solve that. I think that's positive," Kraft said. "But I still think we've got a lot of hard work to do to resolve this. I hope progress keeps happening."
When asked about the perception that these talks, without lawyers present, represent a heightened sense of urgency on the matter, Kraft said he felt the league's approach has always been a serious one.
"For me, there's always been a sense of urgency, because we have the greatest game in America, and we have a lot of people depending on the game," he said. "Not just people working in this building, but service people, support people. On Sunday, it's part of Americana. People plan their day (around it), and we have to be very careful that we continue to enhance it. So I can't speak for other people's comments.
"But I know I personally have been very serious and I know a number of other owners involved here have been serious. And the commissioner has. I think the fact that we're continuing to talk is a very positive sign."
Kraft has also said consistently that he wanted negotiations without the lawyers present, something that is happening now for the first time since the lockout began. Under those conditions, the Patriots owner intimated, the tone has changed.
"We're talking about how we improve the game and how we solve our problems," Kraft said. "The only issue is how do we get football back? There's no other agendas, and that's a very positive thing. But we've still got a lot of hard work to do. There's a lot left to solve. At least we're there talking to one another."
Kraft did, on more than one occasion, throw in the caveat that nothing was imminent.
But he was optimistic that the two sides could work quickly to close the gap on their differences. Internal deadlines to preserve a full preseason -- league projections hold that a cancelled preseason could cost the owners $1 billion -- fall on or around July 15, which gives the sides time to work towards a deal, but makes it imperative that progress comes swiftly.
"I want football back," Kraft said. "I think we're getting close to having to put this thing to bed, so we don't miss any events. I know that's the intent on both sides, but it would be misleading to say anything that would not make it crystal clear that there's a lot of hard work still to be done. But the good news is we're talking, and I think we went 44 days without having communications, and the lawyers on each side were doing stuff. That to me isn't progress.
"I think as long as the principles on each side keep talking -- and we're talking -- and addressing the issues, we've got a chance to solve it."