When NFL owners meet next week in Atlanta, they hope to have a completed, proposed collective bargaining agreement on which to vote.
To that end, impressive momentum came out of a nearly 15-hour labor negotiation Thursday in New York, with the owners and players closing in on an agreement for a new rookie wage scale, according to a source. It appears the issue could be resolved soon if the parties can work out a few minor details.
Sources said the owners made concessions regarding the fifth-year compensation for rookies, marking the breakthrough in negotiations that failed to materialize over the last week of talks at a Manhattan law firm. Other sources said the players made concessions on rules preventing contract renegotiations by draftees until after their third year and undrafted players until after two years.
Sources cautioned that other important issues still need to be resolved to reach an agreement, ending the lockout that began March 12. One source characterized some of those issues as potential stumbling blocks.
However, the parties remain motivated by the idea of saving the preseason in full to quickly close a deal. The owners and players will meet again Friday, which some had set as an internal deadline to reach an agreement and play a full preseason schedule.
The preseason-opening Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, is scheduled for Aug. 7 between the St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears, who are supposed to start training camp at the end of next week. But camps won't open without a new CBA in place, and disruptions to the preseason schedule would decrease the league's overall revenue pie by tens or hundreds of millions of dollars, depending on how many games are canceled.
Even with several issues left to resolve, a solution to the rookie wage scale will provide a critical step toward expediting the process before the parties can agree to terms and begin drawing up legal documents. One source estimated that if full closure on rookie compensation was reached Thursday, there was "a 50-50 chance" the parties could have a handshake deal in place to present to U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, who's on vacation this week, at their scheduled mediation in Minneapolis on Tuesday, two days before the owners' meeting in Atlanta.
Any agreement also must be voted on by groups of players, including the named plaintiffs in the class-action antitrust lawsuit pending in federal court. Baltimore Ravens defensive back Domonique Foxworth told the Associated Press after Thursday's meeting that even after the framework for an agreement is established, "there's really no deal until our players approve it."
According to an involved source, the remaining issues between the owners and players are being dealt with collectively. The process isn't linear, and the parties aren't simply checking items off a list, with each issue affecting others.
Where the money for The Legacy Fund, which benefits retired players, will come from tops the list of issues needing to be resolved. And Thursday, a group of retired players sent the league a letter asking to be a part of the negotiations.
Also needing to be settled is the owners' request for a right of first refusal on up to three veteran free agents in 2011, an issue on which the players won't relent, according to sources.
The parties must work on language to settle the Brady antitrust suit and any plaintiff damages, as well as address the looming decision by Judge David Doty in the television rights fee case. Issues of workers' compensation and injury guarantees also are still being negotiated. And no deal can be complete until the owners and players address the issue of whether now, and how, the NFL Players Association re-constitutes as a labor union.
But the major tenets of the deal are in place, and whether it's completed this weekend or next week, there's a prevailing sense for both parties that they finally are nearing an agreement.
The owners and players put several issues to bed Thursday before breaking for the night, according to sources with direct knowledge of the talks. Those issues included re-addressing the commissioner's power via discipline. A panel of former judges will oversee special master and other decisions, but specifically how commissioner discipline issues are appealed hasn't yet been resolved, though it's "trending" toward a decision, sources said.
Also, salary-cap details became clear -- the 2011 projected cap will be roughly $123 million, according to sources, but as a practical matter will "feel" more like $130 million to teams when cap credits and new cap exceptions are factored. And teams will have to spend, in cash, 90 percent to the cap minimum, and league-wide spending will be pegged at 99 percent to the cap.
Joining NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in the league's contingent Thursday were eight of 10 labor committee members, a group that was joined by Green Bay Packers CEO Mark Murphy and San Diego Chargers president Dean Spanos. Six ownership types participated in meetings Wednesday, including the Carolina Panthers' Jerry Richardson, Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones, New England Patriots' Robert Kraft, New York Giants' John Mara, Kansas City Chiefs' Clark Hunt and Pittsburgh Steelers' Art Rooney II, which is one more than the five who typically had been part of the process during the six previous weeks.
The players' group remained largely the same Thursday, with NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith leading a group that included Foxworth, retirees Pete Kendall and Sean Morey, Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman Tyson Clabo, Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday, New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora, NFLPA general counsel Richard Berthelsen and outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler.
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.