NEW YORK -- NFL owners and players re-entered face-to-face negotiations Thursday, knowing they needed to quicken the pace to reach a labor deal and save the preseason.
And, at the very least, the parties turned up the intensity and put in the hours.
Three sources characterized Thursday as a very difficult day of negotiations. At times, it was tenuous, and there were frustrations for those involved.
But the owners and players stayed at it for 12½ hours, meeting until 10:30 p.m. ET in Manhattan, with a few staying behind to complete wrap-up work and lingering until 11:30 p.m. The result, according to those involved, was a healthy amount of progress on the core economic issues that made the talks so difficult during another long session.
In addition, a conference call was held for the 10 named plaintiffs in the Brady et al vs. National Football League et al antitrust case, to prepare them for upcoming logistics and contingencies with the negotiations in a critical stage.
The owners and players will return to the bargaining table Friday at 9 a.m. The possibility of continuing talks through the weekend exists, although that hasn't been decided. U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, who's overseeing the talks, is scheduled to begin vacation Saturday.
The possibility that Boylan might not participate if talks go into the weekend exists, but two sources said that alone doesn't make Friday's meeting more vital, citing preseason revenue as the primary motivation to quickly reach a settlement.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith each arrived Thursday with five representatives of their constituency, as has been the case at many of these meetings.
Goodell was accompanied by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, New York Giants owner John Mara, Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney II and Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt. Smith brought NFLPA president Kevin Mawae, former special-teams ace Sean Morey, Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch, Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday and Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth.
Mawae was asked what he hoped to accomplish.
"Getting a little bit closer to getting a deal done, hopefully. We'll see," Mawae replied. "The closer we get to the kickoff of the regular season, the more important it becomes that the sides come together. But, again, from the players' standpoint, we have to get a deal that's fair for everybody. We're working hard."
Said Smith: "We still have a lot of work to do. We spent all day working hard for a deal that is fair and in keeping with what the players deserve."
Legal teams and staff from each party met Tuesday and Wednesday in Manhattan, and although progress was made, there's only so much that could be done without owners and players present.
This set of talks is particularly critical for a number of reasons.
There's the issue of timing, with July 15 largely seen as a deadline to settle a deal and save the preseason in full. And there are many issues -- including rookie salaries and funding of retiree benefits -- on which the parties have been working to make breakthroughs.
Those issues flow into the larger issue of the revenue split. After last week's progress, larger concepts in that area, such as the all-revenue model, might no longer be stumbling blocks. But related issues still have potential to tear down what's in place.
It has been estimated that it would take from 10 to 14 days to go from an agreement to a signed document, and this week's meetings are designed to cut down that time and lay groundwork so things can quickly move from settlement to the opening of training camps. The Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams, who are scheduled to play in the Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 7, are set to report to camp July 22.
Saving the preseason would avert a possible loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. Such a loss would affect the owners' offer to the players and could poison negotiations to the point where the dispute would head back to the courts.
Two court rulings are pending: one from U.S. District Judge David Doty in the network rights fees case and another from the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on the NFL's appeal of a lockout-lifting injunction.
Lawyers involved in negotiations believe rulings in the cases have been finalized but that neither Doty nor the 8th Circuit judges, who previously implored the league and players to work out their differences themselves, want to issue them. The failure of talks, this line of thinking goes, could lead Boylan to inform those courts that negotiations have broken down and there's no need to wait to reveal their rulings.
If that's indeed Boylan's hammer, he has used it effectively, prompting progress on the revenue split last week. In that time, many of the "fringe" demands -- deemed unacceptable by one side or the other -- fell off the table as well, clearing the way for more productive talks.
One remaining issue is retired players' benefits, which flows into the revenue-split debate. Owners and players didn't settle the funding for such benefits late last week, and a group of retired players -- led by Carl Eller -- filed a lawsuit Monday in a Minneapolis court seeking to halt the ongoing negotiations and prevent the active players from representing them in that setting.