The NFL and the NFL Players Association agreed to seven consecutive days of negotiations, a league source told NFL Network insider Albert Breer on Thursday, and the sides also will allow mediation in their labor dispute.
The Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, an independent U.S. government agency, will oversee negotiations in Washington D.C., beginning Friday, two weeks before the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players' union expires.
While negotiations could last seven days, they might go just a few days, sources on both sides cautioned, according to NFL Network insider Jason La Canfora.
The fact that a schedule has been carved out is a positive sign, but the arc of these kinds of talks generally is up and down, and deals are usually struck at the last possible minute.
"It is a day-by-day, hour-by-hour thing," one union source said.
Added a league source: "If nothing is being accomplished, no one, especially (the mediator), wants to waste their time."
Both sides pointed to last week's negotiation breakdown, as well as them being unable to make it through two days of talks without incident, as a sign of what still must be overcome. But returning to the negotiating table and involving a third party provides the potential for gains to be made.
After FMCS held separate discussions with representatives from the league and the union, director George H. Cohen said both sides agreed to have the agency mediate. However, that mediation isn't binding.
Cohen said in a statement that the negotiations will be conducted "under my auspices." He is no stranger to sports mediation. He was involved in Major League Soccer's talks with its players' union, and a work stoppage was avoided last year.
Cohen also has worked with the players' associations for Major League Baseball, helping end the 1994-95 strike as a consulting attorney, and the NBA, and he was an advisor to the NHL players' union before joining the FMCS.
"Due to the extreme sensitivity of these negotiations and consistent with the FMCS's long-standing practice, the agency will refrain from any public comment concerning the future schedule and/or the status of those negotiations until further notice," Cohen said.
The FMCS website says it "provides free mediation services in contract negotiation disputes between employers and their unionized employees. All the parties have to do is make a request."
The FMCS also became involved in negotiations during the 2004-05 NHL lockout, and a 2005 dispute between the U.S. Soccer Federation and its players.
NFL players expect the league owners to lock them out if the CBA expires March 3 without a new agreement.
In a statement, NFLPA spokesman George Atallah said: "The NFLPA has always focused on a fair collective bargaining agreement through negotiations. We hope that this renewed effort, through mediation, will help the players and owners reach a successful deal."
NFLPA president Kevin Mawae told The Associated Press in an e-mail: "Any time that both sides of negotiations can get together, whether through conventional means of bargaining or mediation, to come to an agreement that can benefit all parties, it is a good thing.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told The AP in an e-mail: "We are now in mediation." The league also switched an owners meeting from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on March 3, to Chantilly, Va., on March 2-3.
News of mediation could be a positive sign after several months of infrequent negotiations. It also comes just three days after the NFL filed an unfair labor practice charge against the NFLPA with the National Labor Relations Board. Monday's filing said the union "consistently has failed to confer in good faith" during negotiations for a new contract and the union's "conduct amounts to surface bargaining and an anticipatory refusal to bargain."
Aiello told The AP the mediation wouldn't have an effect on the league's NLRB complaint.
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay recalled the last CBA negotiations in 2006, a deal the owners opted out of in 2008.
"Since the last time, things have broken off and guys have gone their separate ways," Irsay said Thursday. "I remember that happened the last time, and (then-commissioner) Paul Tagliabue ended up texting (union chief) Gene Upshaw and said, 'Why don't we get back together.' So you never know when something positive can happen and something good can get done.
"I don't have a strong anticipation something will get done before (March 3), but I think it's possible."
The biggest issue separating the sides is how to divide about $9 billion in annual revenues. Among the other significant points in negotiations: the owners' push to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18 while reducing the preseason by two games, a rookie wage scale and benefits for retired players.
"Our ultimate goal is a new CBA," Atallah wrote Thursday on his Twitter feed. "I will not discuss any details about the next set of negotiations. We are observing a strict media blackout."
However, some players commented moments after the announcement of mediation.
Added player agent Drew Rosenhaus: "Exciting news to see the NFLPA & the Owners talking again through the mediation process -- a productive step in the right direction!"
The Associated Press contributed to this report.