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Nearing preseason puts pressure on parties to seal labor deal

At one point Thursday, the condition of the NFL labor talks -- or at least the perception of them -- had frayed to the point where word was the dispute could be "going back to the courts."

Then some dirty work by U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan led to a late-night negotiation session that went until 1 a.m. CT. Boylan wanted the owners and players to stay even later, but they convinced him they were too tired and met Friday morning instead, and the talks were saved.

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So, what can we learn from all of that entering this week's talks in New York?

First, there clearly is a deal to be done between these parties, because if there wasn't, then reasons to continue talking after five weeks would have dwindled. Second, that hardly means that deal will be done in time to beat the clock on saving the preseason, which means the parties remain in a very precarious spot with plenty of work left to be done.

The negotiations continued Tuesday morning in Manhattan. Legal teams and staff from each party are meeting Tuesday and Wednesday. They will be joined by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith, Boylan, owners and players Thursday and Friday.

And it appears that now, finally, the parties locked in a battle that has produced a fourth-month-old lockout are arriving at the 11th hour.

The reason why lies in the money that would be lost with the cancellation of the preseason. The owners project the number to be close to $1 billion. The players say that number is inflated. Either way, no preseason means a significant chunk will be taken out of the revenue pie, which the owners and players have proven unable to divvy up throughout this whole process.

Asked if it's likely that would affect the owners' offer to the players, one management source said: "No, not likely. It's automatic."

Conversely, in a league where the rank and file see their future as tomorrow, not next year, with the risk of injury and lack of guaranteed contracts, it's pretty unlikely that players would be willing to surrender money in 2012 -- when a down 2011 revenue-wise would hit the salary cap -- or even 2013 in exchange for prosperity for others down the road.

The bottom line: If we make it past July 15, and preseason games are taken off the calendar, the long-term deal the owners put on the table will start looking a lot worse in the short term, and the culture of the sport makes it so Smith would have an exponentially harder time selling the deal if it works only later and not now.

So, in that spot, each side would go looking for leverage, and that could mean this battle would, indeed, head back to the courts.

As one league source said, "The deal erodes as revenues erode." What has happened up to this point can be addressed. But the real damage is coming -- and coming fast -- which is why the next two weeks are critical.

The good news is that the parties left last week's talks seemingly ready to return this week in deal-making mode.

Boylan's efforts helped the parties come a lot closer on the revenue split, to the point where it's not nearly the issue it was last Monday or Thursday, and reach a real definition of "all revenue" in the "all revenue" model. Indications are that many of the "fringe" terms -- ideas pushed by one party and found unacceptable by the other (i.e. sneaking cost credits back in by owners, or players asking sales tax be part of "all revenue") -- were coming off the table by the time the parties left Minneapolis on Friday.

But there's still significant work to do, and a recognition that the process needs to speed up, and it needs to speed up now.

There's the issue of funding improvements on retirees' benefits, and pressure from the retirees that they not be sacrificed to help the owners and players strike a deal. There are details and language to work out as well.

There's also the question of who had their hand in the cookie jar over the weekend. The owners are still leery of the players' lawyers, most notably Jeffrey Kessler, and the players believed a "bait and switch" was pulled on them last week, with certain terms coming off the table after one weekend away from talks.

The hope is that the calendar will prevent that from happening again, with the stakes raised as the time before the scheduled opening of training camps dwindles. For those keeping score, the St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears are supposed to report to camp July 22.

The mutual understanding that this is a very important time should help push along the negotiations. When one party looks at another's proposal with a month left, it's easy to believe there's a better one coming closer to a deadline, or that it might be able squeeze more out of the negotiation.

With time running short, that train of thought becomes less valid.

It all adds up to this being the time. Maybe it's this week. Maybe it's next week.

There will be ups and downs that might be blown a bit out of proportion, as last week's were. But everyone knows that if a deal is going to be done during this phase of negotiations, it has to happen soon.

The alternative would put much more than the preseason in peril.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.

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