MINNEAPOLIS -- At 4 p.m. Thursday, the NFL Players Association conducted a conference call with its player reps and executive committee members and painted a grim picture as the labor situation made a turn for the worse.
Then everything changed.
As it turned out, the call, made after seven hours of negotiations at a downtown Minneapolis law firm, came less than halfway through the day's talks. And after those talks finished just before 1 a.m. CT and another set was staged Friday morning, a different story was emerging.
The owners and players still have much work to do, but major progress was made to fix the revenue split, the overriding issue in the labor battle, on Thursday night and Friday morning. One source said that if smaller pieces connected to it don't shift the numbers too much, it "might not even be a stumbling block going forward."
In addition, the parties took strides to work out disagreements over how to define "all revenue" in the model they plan to use, and they also discarded some terms in the deal the other side found unacceptable.
So one set of critical talks now gives way to another. The legal teams for each side will meet in New York on Tuesday and Wednesday, with players and owners returning to the table Thursday and Friday. The format for the week follows the one set for the Minneapolis talks.
"We'll continue to meet next week, and our goal is to get a deal done," NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said on his way out. NFL general counsel Jeff Pash, again citing the gag order, simply said: "We'll be back at it again next week."
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello made it clear Saturday that both sides plan to work through the holiday weekend.
"Are the NFL-NFLPA negotiators 'taking the weekend off?' Most definitely not," he tweeted. "Lawyers are drafting language for potential agreement, sharing it with PA. All kinds of phone, email exchanges going on. Work continues."
U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan proved to be a pivotal figure when things were at their darkest Thursday. Boylan was able to rein the parties in, narrow their focus to what was important on the revenue split and forge a very productive evening.
This was after issues that arose last week in Massachusetts (over the rookie salary system) and Monday (over what the players perceived as a deception play by owners on the revenue system) resurfaced and again proved explosive, with players and owners re-entering the room after legal teams handled the earlier part of the week.
Things went so well Thursday that Boylan implored the sides to keep going past 1 a.m. The players and owners convinced the judge -- who ran court-ordered mediation in April and May, but has no binding power in these talks -- that they were spent, but the positive momentum continued into Friday morning.
And realistic hope remains that the league will be able to stage the preseason in its natural form, without the cancellation of any games, which would save hundreds of millions of dollars. Internal deadlines to have a deal done in order to save the preseason sit around July 15, and part of the ratcheted-up sense of urgency is the acknowledgement by both sides that a settlement will be exponentially tougher to reach if significant revenue is subtracted from the equation.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell led a group that included New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, New York Giants owner John Mara and Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, with Kraft and Mara the two constants for the owners in the five sets of clandestine meetings.
Smith's team included NFLPA managing director Ira Fishman, outside counsel Jim Quinn, general counsel Richard Berthelsen, Indianapolis Colts center Jeff Saturday, Baltimore Ravens cornerback Domonique Foxworth, Chiefs guard Brian Waters and former player Sean Morey. Foxworth, like Kraft and Mara, has been a constant presence at these meetings, which started May 31.
The four previous "secret" sessions over the past month took place in suburban Chicago, New York's Long Island, Maryland's Eastern Shore and Massachusetts' South Shore. The Chicago talks, the first in the series, started May 31 and lasted three days, and the Long Island, Eastern Shore and South Shore negotiations went for two days apiece.
The St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears, this year's Hall of Fame Game participants, are scheduled to open training camp July 22, so time is beginning to run short.
The parties have spent the past four weeks largely discussing the revenue split. And it's not just the revenue now, but also how to account for the league's future growth, particularly when the 2014 television deals are done, in the players' take. The idea of an "all revenue" model, which would largely eliminate cost credits to the owners and limit revenue projections, has bridged differences over the course of the discussions.
As for the rookie salary system, the numbers aren't the only issue. Finding a way to replace the market effect those contracts have on veterans as well as getting high draft picks to free agency quicker are among the players' concerns. As it stands, six-year contracts are allowed for high first-round picks making big money.