WASHINGTON -- The NFL and NFLPA adjourned seven days of federal mediation on Thursday, agreeing to return to the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service next Tuesday at the request of mediator George H. Cohen.
"Our time together has been devoted to establishing an atmosphere conducive to meaningful negotiations and, of course, matters of process and substance," Cohen said in a statement released Thursday. "I can report that throughout this extensive period, the parties engaged in a highly focused, constructive dialogue concerning a host of issues covering both the economics and player-related conditions.
"The tenor of across-the-board discussions reflected a noteworthy level of mutual respect even in the face of strongly held competing positions."
But Cohen added, "Some progress was made, but very strong differences remain on the all-important core issues."
The March 1 meeting back at the FMCS runs right into an owners meeting scheduled for March 2 and 3 in nearby Chantilly, Va. The current collective bargaining agreement expires at 11:59 p.m. ET on March 3, with the NFLPA assuming the owners will lock players out on March 4.
On Thursday, the steady stream of active players to appear at the mediation continued, with executive committee members Jeff Saturday, Brian Waters, Mike Vrabel and Brian Dawkins in attendance. As the four players loaded into a Cadillac Escalade headed for the airport, Saturday was asked why it was important that there be active players at the meetings.
"I think ownership, everybody, needs to know that we're all committed to it and committed to getting something done," he responded.
The cone of silence over these talks remains in place, with both sides expected to stay quiet until reconvening next week.
Spending some three hours in the building Thursday, the sides engaged in nearly 50 hours of mediation during their seven days here.
On Thursday, the player contingent arrived shortly before NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, who entered the building at 9:30 a.m. ET. Also in the NFLPA group was general counsel Richard Berthelsen.
Union outside counsel Jeffrey Kessler is in Minnesota for Thursday's network rights fees hearing. Judge David Doty delayed his ruling in that case, which is vital to these labor negotiations.
The NFL group arrived earlier, with Commissioner Roger Goodell, general counsel Jeff Pash and outside counsel Bob Batterman coming in the 8 a.m. hour. When it was pointed out to Batterman that Thursday is the final day of the mediation and everyone is leaving, he responded, "But still continuing to talk."
Goodell, on his way in shortly before 9 a.m., said, "I hate to tell you this, but no comment."
The league side went all seven days without any of the 32 NFL owners in the mediation.
Where the status quo was maintained for much of the first five days of meetings, the chronology of events on Wednesday differed.
From Friday through Tuesday, and through some 38 hours of meetings, the NFL and NFLPA had stayed largely locked in the FMCS building, with only individuals trickling out from time to time. But on Wednesday, an NFLPA contingent numbering 12 -- that included Smith and active players and union executive committee members Saturday, Vrabel, Waters and Dawkins -- left the meetings at 3:15 p.m. ET.
Smith said the group was "taking a break until 5 (p.m.)" and headed for the NFLPA's 20th Street office, two blocks away. They returned at 4:45 p.m., and then left again, this time for good, less than an hour later.
Neither side said why then, and weren't expounding on it Thursday either, per the request of Cohen.
"It's nice of you guys to cover this, it's important," said NFLPA former players executive committee representative Jim McFarland. "But unfortunately, there's not much information we can provide. Hopefully this will all work out."
The union did go to the length of calling off a small meeting with high-level agents scheduled for Thursday in Indianapolis. The NFLPA will hold a mandatory meeting for all player-agents in Indianapolis on Friday.
There will be a league meeting on Thursday afternoon for high-ranking club officials, with head coaches, general managers, and a third team official of the club's choosing present, according to multiple league sources.
When asked about it, league spokesman Greg Aiello responded, via email, that "It happens every year. It's a normal part of the Combine, which always has meetings galore.
Added Aiello: "It's not the first time. It's not a special meeting. An update on labor negotiations would be appropriate."
The meeting has garnered some buzz in NFL circles, though. When asked if it was unusual, one high-ranking club official responded that, "These are unusual times." In addition to having the general manager and coach there, the official said the third man in would likely be "your lead cap person or lead person on league matters, or team president."
One general manager said that he'd been present at such meetings at the combines in the past, and anticipated this one would "just be an update on procedures."