There was something rare in the stale air of the labor talks between NFL players and owners over the weekend: optimism. Secret meetings last Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday between a small group of owners (one of them, hawkish Jerry Jones, looming as an important inclusion) and player leaders, followed by a stern admonishment from a federal judge on Friday, left the two sides feeling a sense of urgency to get something done in the next month—or face the real possibility that regular-season games will be missed for the first time in 24 years.
"This is the time," said Bob Wallace, a lawyer now in private practice after a 30-year career in NFL front offices. "Attorneys will always tell you the best time to settle a case is on the courthouse steps, and that's where they are right now. There's pressure on each side to make the best deal they can."
Which is why former union chief DeMaurice Smith, along with player reps Domonique Foxworth, Kevin Mawae, Tony Richardson, Jeff Saturday and Mike Vrabel, reportedly met up in a Chicago suburb with Jones and fellow owners John Mara of the Giants, the Patriots' Robert Kraft, the Panthers' Jerry Richardson and the Steelers' Art Rooney II. A federal judge has thrown a gag order on the two sides (wonder how long that's going to last), but one source briefed on the talks made it clear that both parties were supremely motivated to do a deal before the three-judge appeals panel in St. Louis issues its ruling clarifying the NFL's ability to lock out players. The leverage that would come from the court ruling—two of the three judges seem to be leaning toward allowing the NFL to continue the lockout, which is entering its fourth month—could allow the winner, as this source pointed out, to put a foot on the throat of the other side and try to exact onerous concessions. A players' victory would likely force the season to be played but still leave the two sides without a new collective bargaining agreement. An owners' victory would not only continue the lockout but also surely embolden some owners to resist improving on their last offer. Or, quite possibly, even take some of what Smith called "the worst deal in the history of sports" off the table.
Before last Friday the owners might have been able to sit back confidently and await a victory in St. Louis. But when Judge Kermit Bye told each side that the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decision "is probably something both sides are not going to like," it was a reality check for commissioner Roger Goodell and the owners. As much as they're going to want to hold the line on their current offer, they can't. And as much as the players want to press their antitrust case, which surely would threaten the season, they know they probably can't stay unified if the league's roughly 1,800 players miss multiple game checks. As former player and NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth said last month, "The only thing I'm absolutely certain of is that there will be players broke by the middle of September. There will be pressure to make a deal."
That deal, I believe, will include something the owners left out of their offer on March 11, the last time either side made a proposal. The owners offered a four-year pay-and-benefits package to the players beginning at $141 million per team in 2011 and escalating to $161 million in 2014. That was close to the players' request for between $151 million and $161 million over four years. But the players want a back-end guarantee, a piece of the pie if the NFL's revenues continue to defy current economic gravity. The owners haven't offered one. That has to change, particularly with the network TV contracts expiring after the 2013 season and a potential mother lode of new TV money coming in 2014.
Then there's the Jones factor. Several league insiders feel his inclusion in the talks (along with doves Mara, Kraft and Rooney) is important on two levels. One, he's a dealmaker; when he has set his mind on something, from obtaining the Dallas franchise itself to building the garish new Cowboys Stadium, he's gotten it done. Two, he's a hardliner determined to make some financial corrections to the 2006 labor deal that the owners opted out of three years ago. For him to be a part of settlement discussions might seem counterproductive, but as one league insider said over the weekend, "Roger knows he has to have Jerry on his side. Not only is he influential among the owners of the high-revenue teams, but it's almost a case of keeping your friends close and enemies closer. Jerry's not an enemy, but it's going to be much better for the 'haves' in this league if Jerry takes ownership of any new deal."
Finally, there was a sense on the players' side last week that they too might be willing to move. Though publicly they've been adamant about keeping the Brady v. NFL antitrust suit in play, the dissolution of that case would have to be part of a settlement. I've said for three months, there's a deal to be made. If the players drop the antitrust case, and the owners add a back end to their offer, and a few million per team in Year One of the deal, and both sides do so in the next month, the season starts on time. If not, the Sept. 8 Saints-Packers opener is in jeopardy.
Let's put the over-under date for a deal on the Fourth of July.
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Both parties are SUPREMELY MOTIVATED to do a deal before the appeals panel issues its ruling.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW