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The NFL labor situation is bad, but resolution closer than it appears

Maybe it's because I'm an optimist. Maybe it's because when I left the Westend Bistro on the edge of Georgetown just before midnight Thursday, union board member Jeff Saturday and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell were deep in discussion in the bar, and not very happy to have been seen. Maybe it's because when Goodell and De Smith of the decertified players union spoke Friday night after negotiations broke down, neither strafed the other with the kind of verbiage that would be hard to take back.

It's bad now. We all know that. It's in the hands of the lawyers, and it could be for months, and there's a scenario under which games will be lost this year. But it's not Olbermann-O'Reilly bad, or LeBron-Cleveland bad. And it's way too early for doomsday. Opening weekend is 26 weeks away, and after leaving Washington on Saturday, and talking with people from both sides over the weekend, I believe the players and owners are closer to a deal than anyone thought Friday night.

I said closer than anyone thought, not close. The league needs to bend more on the issue of financial transparency. And the league needs to read the other side much, much better; I can't believe no one in the NFL's Harvardian negotiating party could sense the explosion brewing among the players on the union side, players who felt dissed because they hadn't negotiated against the league's full ownership team of labor negotiators. There's a business side to this, and there's a personal side, and the league failed to understand the personal anger the players had about being ignored or belittled, or both, as the clock wound down Thursday and Friday. Argue if you want about that being an act or immature or whatever, but I can tell you -- it was there. For days. I felt it hourly standing on the sidewalk outside the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service at the corner of 21st and K streets. How did league people not feel it upstairs in the meeting rooms?

And don't read this to mean that I think there will be a new collective bargaining agreement done this summer. It could be that the league will play this year under the capless 2010 rules if forced to, while negotiating some weeks and arguing the case in a Minneapolis courtroom other weeks.

But the league moved a lot Friday. Not enough, but a lot. When Goodell met with key league people shortly after sunrise Friday, likely emboldened by some but not all positive ideas exchanged with Saturday, the Colts' center, hours earlier, he began to put together with the owners a series of new proposals. Examine the offer Goodell and league counsel Jeff Pash put on the table to the union Friday -- which, in the wake of the thing blowing up, I don't think even big football fans and big football players have done enough of -- and you'll see that there's a deal to be made.

Look at what's in this deal:

The probable end of the cockamamie 18-game regular-season idea -- unless the players resuscitate it. The league said the regular season would stay at 16 games for the next two seasons, and wouldn't go to 18 in the next three years unless the players approved. All I'd heard for the past six months was when the league goes to 18 games. Not "if.''

The players hated the 18-game season with a passion, and for good reason. Injuries are an epidemic; in game 17 this year, New Orleans got to the fourth quarter of the wild-card showdown at Seattle with its eighth running back of the season ready to go. The first five were on IR. The next two got hurt earlier in that game. I could pick 10 other examples to make the case for not playing more real games, but it's just common sense. Goodell got it. Just like that, it's gone.

The offseason becoming more like an offseason. Current offseason programs -- the (nudge-nudge) voluntary mandatory ones -- last from early March to mid-June at team facilities. There's no rule for how long or short they are, but as a general rule, they're about 15 weeks long, with mandatory long-weekend minicamps and 14 days of Offseason Training Activities (OTAs) mixed in. The NFL proposed cutting five weeks off the offseason program, essentially lopping off a third of it, and cutting the 14 OTA days down to 10. "We were getting into an arms race, and everyone knew it,'' said one league executive.

In addition, the league, led by Competition Committee chair Rich McKay and Washington GM Bruce Allen, along with influential player leaders, in smaller group sessions at the mediator's office, had discussed limiting the number of two-a-days in training camp and curtailing the number of padded in-season practices.

Third-party arbitration for drug and steroid appeals. You know who presided over the league's StarCaps appeal? Pash. Goodell, under the powers of the commissioner, had the right to discipline and to hear appeals for players in drug, steroid and disciplinary cases. This infuriated players, and rightly so. What sense did it make to appeal a drug case to the office that gave you the original penalty? In the proposed new CBA, the league and players would agree to an impartial person to hear the appeals, perhaps from one of the major anti-doping agencies.

A significant improvement in post-football health care. The devil might be in the details on this one. Currently, vested NFL players with four years of service or more can retire and get five years of free post-career health care. In the proposal, vested players could receive lifetime health care after the five years expire, simply by paying an annual COBRA-like fee. How would this differ from health care in the real world? Many players retire with some pre-existing condition that would make health insurance more expensive (perhaps much more so) to obtain on their own.

One other factor here: The NFL would allow players to fund future health premiums in a health-care reimbursement account, for use years after their careers end. I don't know enough about this -- all the details on it haven't been ironed out -- but with this piece of the pie, a player who began to experience terrible back pain, for instance, 12 years after his career ended, wouldn't have to appear before an NFL panel to try to prove it's football-related. He'd be covered regardless of how the back pain happened.

Teams would have to spend 90 percent of the salary-cap number over the first three years of the new CBA. Last year, the Chiefs and Bucs both won 10 games and spent no more than $85 million on player salaries. Over the next three years, they'd have to raise that to at least $110.3 million, on average, per year. (That number would vary, depending on the salary-cap numbers the owners and players would agree to.)

This is a complex tenet because the two sides are at odds over how much the cap should be and also, according to players union veteran Pete Kendall, because of two ways to figure a cap. The league offered a $131 million cap for year one of the new CBA that could increase based on league profits if the league made 5.5 percent more profit than in the previous year; when the league increased the offer to $141 million, all the incentive money was gone, and $141 million was a flat figure, Kendall said. If you wonder why the 90 percent figure wouldn't have the 90-percent figure higher, know that the cap number includes about $25 million in annual health-and-benefit expenses.

Guaranteeing up to $1 million for a player whose career was ended by injury in the midst of a multi-year contract. Teams have never, as a matter of course -- unless it was written into the contract to begin with -- paid injury guarantees after a player's career ended. Example (and this is fictitious): Let's say Chicago linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer retired this offseason after he missed most of last year with a concussion. Instead of getting none of his scheduled $1.8-million salary in 2011, he'd get $1 million. That's not exactly noble. But it's new.

Now for the transparency. The union has been asking to see the owners' books, the complete per-club audited financial statements, for 22 months. It's been at the baseline of every demand it's had. The players say if the owners are asking for some financial relief in a time of great prosperity at the gate and via television contracts, owners should be open with their finances, and not just with each team's bottom line. But with intricate details.

How many McCaskeys are on the Bears payroll, and what do they do? Are there owners applying excessive private-jet transportation, perhaps for only vaguely football-related matters, to the football bottom line?

Last week, the league offered to have a third-party auditor go over every one of the 32 teams' financials for the past five seasons and report to the NFL and the union how much each team had made each season. The players said no.

Owners don't want to go further, even if individual teams and names are redacted. They figure: We're showing you comparisons of our bottom line over the past five years; that should be enough to prove to you that the business might be more awash in money, but it's actually less profitable than it was four years ago.

But if the NFL showed an auditor the redacted books, and allowed the auditor to say Team X has a line item of $2.7 million for private-plane travel and Team Y paid $100,000 to fly private that year ... and if Team X had sharply declining profits, wouldn't logic say that maybe Team X should be flying commercial? Now, such an intrusion into the private business of teams is totally objectionable to many, and I understand. But if the owners go further and provide the redacted statements, then the players would get killed in the court of public opinion if they found some fault with the methodology if, indeed, they were seeing everything, just not with the team and employees names in full view.

Now, I'll make one last point about the transparency. Several on the league side believe the players' side really doesn't want to see the numbers, because if they got the numbers and they proved the owners' point about declining revenue, then their case about immense team profits would be out the window. Is it worth an extra $10 million per team to keep the statements hidden? If so, this deal gets done tomorrow. Think of it. The league offered a cap number in year one of the new deal of $141 million on Friday, rising to $161 million in year four; that's salary plus player benefits, per year. The players' number is $151 million in year one, rising to $161 million in year four.

The difference isn't even an average of $10 million per year, given the fact that each side is at $161 million in year four. Even with the vagaries of how much, if any, revenue would be shared if the league exceeds its projected revenue in a given year, there's a deal to be made even if the league continues to say it won't open the books as wide as the players want them opened.

If the issue were put to a vote, I'm not sure the NFL wouldn't have 24 teams that said, in effect, we don't want the release of redacted financial statements to stand in the way of a new labor deal. As Broncos COO Joe Ellis told the Denver Post: "If the league decides they want to open up the books of the Denver Broncos to present them to the union, I don't know if the league is into identifying individual clubs because they're private businesses. But with a neutral [auditor] to verify the fact that certain teams haven't been operating as effectively as they did in the past, we're a willing and able participant.''

Finally, I wrote this the night this thing blew up: Who could blame the players for standing so firmly? They read Judge David S. Doty's 28-page ruling ripping the NFL for creating a $4 billion lockout fund by strong-arming the TV networks into paying their 2011 fee whether there were games or a lockout. That's when the NFLPA knew it could keep to its demand for full financial transparency. Doty wrote: "The record shows that the NFL undertook contract negotiations to advance its own interests and harm the interest of the players.''

Though the $4 billion was in essence a loan that the league would have to repay over the term of the contract, the money still would be a hammer to harm the players. Doty's acknowledgment of that was big for the NFLPA to have in its hip pocket.

So now we wait. The union -- or the professional trade organization, which is legally what the NFLPA can be called now -- will try for an injunction to make the owners open their facilities and begin the 2011 league year. Could happen any week. Could not. Could be appealed. It's a mess. I think this will find its way back to mediator George Cohen's auspices, regardless of the legalities. Yes, it could still blow up and cost the NFL games this year. But it just seems too close for that. We'll see.

***

And now for something completely different.

A quick update on NFL Films czar Steve Sabol: He's still resting and progressing in a Kansas City hospital after suffering a seizure before a March 5 banquet in Kansas City. His prognosis is good. I thought the readers of this column and those who've grown up on NFL Films (that means you, Larry Johnson, and so much more of the football world we all follow) would want to send along well-wishes to Sabol. If so, e-mail him at Sabol.NFLFilms@NFL.com. He could use your support.

***

A Mike McGuire sighting -- and hearing.

Readers have gotten to know U.S. Army Sgt. Mike McGuire, a platoon leader of men detonating and disarming improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Afghanistan. McGuire is two months into his third and final tour of the Persian Gulf, this time in northern Afghanistan, and the other day the USO winter tour of former players Merril Hoge, Matt Millen and Anthony Munoz stopped at his base. He met the men, and NFL liaison David Krichavsky ended up getting him on the phone with me Friday -- as I waited out the owners and players in federal mediation in Washington. I asked what'd he say to the two sides if he were in the room with them. "I wish the two sides knew how important the game is to me over here,'' McGuire said, sounding chipper. "The escape it provides us is so important.''

Millen met McGuire. Millen also met his son Marcus, a West Point grad and an Army Ranger lieutenant. "It was pretty emotional, obviously,'' said Matt Millen. "You don't want to let him go. Finally he said, 'That's enough, Dad.' ''

I met McGuire six years ago at a baseball game in St. Louis, and we've kept in touch over the years, mostly via e-mail. I worry about him a lot, and I know many of you do too. He's an IED-wrangler, for God's sake. McGuire is in charge of his largest platoon yet, about 200 troops. "This deployment's a little different,'' he said. "We're getting out in the communities a little more, talking to people, helping them, trying to get them to understand we want to help them.''

Good to hear his voice. And just so you know: The USO delivery of weights, recreation equipment, computers and video games -- which you helped raise money for last year -- is due to be delivered by the USO any day. McGuire will send along some photos, I hope, after it's set up to show all of you how important that gesture of goodwill by so many of you actually was.

"It's horribly poor form ... for the NFL to take the position that Congress should stay out of the labor dispute when involvement could pressure the league to do a deal, and then to embrace Congressional involvement when it could pressure the players to do a deal.''-- Mike Florio, on profootballtalk.com, writing Sunday about how three congressmen, including former Redskins quarterback Heath Shuler (D-N.C.), released a letter this weekend urging NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith to meet with NFL Alumni czar George Martin to discuss benefits for retired players.

Martin has been attempting to meet with Smith for months now, and Smith, presumably because Martin works with the blessing of the NFL, has refused. The NFL has long urged a new CBA to be forged at the negotiating table, not in the halls of Congress or in court.

"For NFL players, federal court in Minneapolis is a legal nirvana.''-- Richard Sandomir, ace TV/business of sports/general-assignment reporter for the New York Times, leading his story Sunday about how Minnesota has been a good home field for NFL players in court cases for the last 20-plus years.

"I'm most disappointed in the actions of the Union's leadership that is supposed to be representing all of our players. They clearly were not negotiating in good faith right from the beginning. I believe their intention all along was to decertify and bring us to litigation.''-- San Diego Chargers president Dean Spanos, a member of the owners' negotiating committee.

What would you say if I told you that Tiki Barber, in his last three years of football (at 29, 30 and 31) was more durable and more productive than Adrian Peterson was in his past three years (at 23, 24 and 25). It's true. Barber carried more times, for more yards and more yards per carry (5.0 for Barber, 4.6 for Peterson) in those respective periods.

My point is not that Barber, who turns 36 next month, would be a success coming out of retirement after four years away from the game. (With his TV career in mothballs, Barber announced last week that he intends to try to return to football if anyone will sign him.) My point is that Barber averaged 110 rushing yards per game after turning 30 -- the highest average rushing figure over the 2005 and '06 seasons for any back in football -- and, well, it wouldn't be a total waste of time to bring him to training camp for backfield insurance. On a non-guaranteed contract, of course.

How the careers of Barber (age 29-31) and Peterson (age 23-25) compare:

When David Boies, 70, was added to the NFL's legal team for the fight against the players on Saturday (he actually agreed to work for the NFL before the Super Bowl in the event the players took the NFL to court; the announcement was made Saturday), a few veteran league observers were stunned. The plain-spoken and deep-thinking Boies is, in the words of one veteran sports executive, "about as liberal as George McGovern, and who'd have ever thought the NFL would hire someone like that?''

Boies worked for Al Gore in trying to get his close loss to George Bush in the 2000 election overturned. He won a case in California seeking to overturns the state's ban on gay marriage. He's a big supporter of Teach for America, which urges some of the smartest college graduates in the country to give their first two post-grad years to teaching in underprivileged school districts. He represented far, far left-wing filmmaker Michael Moore in a Treasury Department investigation into Moore's travel to Cuba in the health-care-industry-ravaging movie Sicko.' And he was of a team of lawyers representing Jamie McCourt in her high-profile divorce from Frank McCourt.

Boies might make good theater out of some of these boring legal arguments coming up.

As a city to have fun in, we underrate Washington. It's not just the historic sights you see almost no matter where you're perched in town. It's the neighborhoods, with the good places to eat and drink. The problem with Washington as a place to visit over the years as an NFL writer is pretty simple: You rarely stay in Washington. You're either out near Dulles Airport if visiting the Redskins' practice facility, or you're in the Maryland burbs if covering a game at FedEx. That has to change.

The other night, upon a recommendation from Jon Saraceno of USA Today, I got some nice pasta in Georgetown. Friday night, I went with NFL.com's Albert Breer and girlfriend Emily to a craft beer place, ChurchKey, hoping to get something to drink and eat (in that order), and though we stayed for one beer, it was just too crowded for 53-year-old people; 20-somethings love places like that but it was just too loud and too mobbed. We walked two blocks down the street to Posto, an Italian place, and, joined by scribes Greg Bedard and Alex Marvez, had some fine ravioli.

I left Saturday vowing to stay in D.C. on all future trips associated with the Redskins. It's just too good a city.

"NFL = March Sadness.''--@gametimemickey, Mickey Ryan, as the labor negotiations blew up Thursday night in Washington.

"Love how one person close to talks just put it to me: 'Hoping for a Hail Mary, preparing for Thelma and Louise.' ''--@SI_PeterKing, me, at nearly the same time Thursday, with the two sides one day away from running the talks off a cliff.

"A labor dispute is not Armageddon. It is not war. It is 2 groups who have let passion overcome reason.''--@davegoldberg84, longtime pro football writer Dave Goldberg, in the wake of the week's news.

1. I think I still can't believe Blaine Gabbert will go number one. Well, maybe I can, if Ben Dogra and Tom Condon represent him, because they've had pretty good luck with first-round pick quarterbacks recently. I found it interesting, and perhaps telling, that Condon/Dogra, who never pursued JaMarcus Russell in 2007, never pursued Cam Newton this year either. Not to say Newton won't go number one, and not to say that he's in any way the next colossal failure in the NFL. Just simply making the observation that Condon and Dogra didn't like something about Newton and left him alone.

2. I think I couldn't give a care whether the top draft picks will be in New York or not. Agents, as you know, may keep them away in protest of the current labor situation. It's not going to affect anyone's enjoyment of the draft one bit, except maybe ESPN's or NFL Network's. The cameras will find these guys, wherever they are.

3. I think I don't want to hear either side say another word about how much they care about the fans. Meaningless prattle. The owners care about the fans turning in their season-ticket money. The players care about the fans not thinking they're greedy carpetbaggers. The fans don't want to hear anything other than, "We've got a new labor deal.''

4. I think I could feel Robert Kraft's consternation, through a very hoarse voice from Israel, on Saturday. He's been the most optimistic owner of them all, even though most often he's had nothing to be optimistic about. Imagine how Kraft will feel when he reads the antitrust lawsuit that will forever become known as Brady v. National Football League. It'll make him sicker than he already is.

5. I think I'd put my money on Tiki Barber being in training camp with either Tampa Bay, Oakland, New England or the Jets.

6. I think the player with the best chance to extend the olive branch over the next four months is Jeff Saturday. Owner: John Mara. Patient, very well-respected guys.

7. I think if the league year begins sometime in the next month or so, which I think is most likely, the big winner will be Nnamdi Asomugha. Because the NFL's 2011 system is most likely to be based on the 2010 league year, with no salary cap, and with Asomugha the best player, far and away, on the free market, I wouldn't be surprised to see him challenge Brady's $19-million average salary.

The guy just finished making $14.1-million, average, for the last two years, and he's one of the best two cornerbacks (along with Darrelle Revis) in the league, and he plays one of the most important positions in the game. Why wouldn't some team, in a possibly capless year, pay him $20 million a year? Or at least $18 million?

8. I think if I were Scott Pioli or Mark Dominik, running the contending Chiefs and Bucs, respectively, and with the aforementioned puny team salaries, I'd be on Asomugha. Very, very hard.

9. I think if the players and owners go back to the mediator in Washington, George Cohen, I'll be conveniently on vacation then. That's really fun stuff, standing outside for nine hours on a sidewalk in 42-degree wind chill.

10. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

a. So proud of my nephew, Evan King of South Windsor, Conn., for taking the Eagle Scout oath Sunday afternoon. It was a touching ceremony with one of his good friends and fellow Eagle Scouts, Brendan Russo, because it was my late brother, Bob, who shepherded Evan through much of his scouting life. (With help from many other scouting dads in South Windsor, too.)

When Bob died last summer, he was knee-deep with Evan in all things scouting, including his Eagle project of building a boat launch on a beautiful lake in town. How he would have loved to see his son Sunday afternoon, not only in accepting proclamations from the governor in absentia and the state representative and the mayor of his town (in person), but in standing in front of a big room of people and handling himself like such a fine young man. His speech left us pretty choked up. He ended with this, with a shred of emotion in his voice:

"To my extended family, your support and generosity, especially in recent times, has given my mom, my sister and me the comfort that the loss of my dad has not been a loss of hope. And I can't forget my parents when it comes to this, or any part of my life; my mom's constant encouragement, especially toward the end, to get the project done and my dad's presence in every way through my years in scouting.

"I can't thank my mom enough for her strength in the face of loss and tireless continuation of what she has always been for our family. The same goes for my sister. And my dad has defined so much of who I am, or who I try to be today. Scouting was a huge part of my dad's life during his last years, and he loved it, he was truly happy being a leader and a scoutmaster. If he were here today, he would have the same gratitude as I do, as he often told us he did.''

If he were here today, Evan, he'd be beaming. I'm sure he was, without even being in the room.

b. Love NCAA Tournament geography this time of year. Temple, in Philadelphia, and Penn State, in central Pennsylvania, meet in the first round of the tournament, 2,300 miles away in Tucson. In the West Regional.

c. Good for Newark. If form holds -- it rarely does, of course -- the Prudential Center would host a super regional in a week and a half: Ohio State, North Carolina, Syracuse and Kentucky. Scalper's paradise, given the fan bases of each.

d. You're happy if you're a Boston University Terrier this morning, to be sure. But then you look at the bracket and ask, "What are we, chopped liver?'' Wofford, Bucknell, Belmont, Morehead State, Long Island and Northern Colorado all are seeded higher.

e. I still don't understand why, if USC, Virginia Commonwealth and Clemson are all better than a quarter of the field, they're playing, in essence, play-in games.

f. I always get a kick out of the NIT schedule. I believe -- though I'm not positive -- that in the NIT the home team in every game now is the better-seeded team. If that's the case, look at the paths Fairfield and Harvard would have to take to get the NIT Final Four just down the road at Madison Square Garden, Fairfield about 45 minutes away, and Harvard four hours in a bus.

Fairfield would have to win in Fort Collins, Colo. (against Colorado State), then in Moraga, Calif. (against St. Mary's) and then in Boulder, Colo. (against Colorado) -- if Fairfield won and played the best-seed teams along with way. Harvard's route: at Oklahoma State in Stillwater, at Washington State in Pullman and at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. I've been to all three places, and let me just say: You can't get there from here. Especially Pullman. That is one incredible haul.

g. Wow. UConn. Five wins in five days to win the Big East, the first three played at noon. What an accomplishment.

h. First at-bat of his Boston Red Sox career Saturday in Fort Myers, against the noted Josh Johnson: Adrian Gonzalez took the first pitch he saw and served it on a line onto the grass in left field. Have a feeling there's more where that came from.

i. So the Devils have 14 games left, and they're 22-3-2 in their last 27, and they just can't gain fast enough on the bottom dwellers of the NHL Eastern Conference playoff race. They're eight points back of the Rangers and Sabres, and though they have two games in hand on New York and one on Buffalo, they have three teams to jump and have to hope one of the incumbents goes into a tailspin. Looks like Jersey just dug itself too much of a hole in the first two months.

j. Devilnerdness: Last nine games have been decided by one goal.

k. Coffeenerdness: Great, great lead in the New York Times SundayBusiness section story on Starbucks: "Raise your hand if you remember when Starbucks seemed cool. Anyone?'' Claire Cain Miller is one heck of a writer. She went on to pen: "During the depths of the recession, Starbucks nearly drowned in its caramel macchiato.'' She said CEO Howard Schultz has a "trenta-sized ambition.'' Good job, Claire.

l. Beernerdness: You know Washington's a good beer city when you go to two straight places and find the same great beer -- Prima Pils, the Victory Brewing Company's excellent pilsener.

m. It goes very much without saying, but our hopes and prayers are with everyone in Japan. Can't imagine what you're all going through over there.

n. I have to credit Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports for being clear and very well-explained in his NFL labor coverage. He really gets the economic issues. And Don Banks has been irreverent and tough on both sides for letting it get to this point.

o. Kudos, Albert Breer, for working for the NFL's TV network and working as hard as you can to be a real journalist, getting both sides of a tough story.

p. I wish whoever invented the Thin Mint girl scout cookies had invented something else. Like Brussels Sprout cookies. Either that or come get them out of my house. I inhale those things.

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