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With the labor negotiations 'at the 5-yard line,' can NFL punch it in?

With face-to-face negotiations between the principle figures involved in the NFL's labor fight scheduled to again resume Thursday in New York, many observers believe the end game to this messy, four-month test of wills and wallets has at last come into view.

Or at least they desperately want to believe it. But has it really? Assessing how much progress has been made toward a resolution, and more importantly, how much work remains to be done in the CBA talks is a difficult and inexact judgment to make. The folks who are on the inside of the negotiations are legally bound by a gag order. Everyone else seems in short supply of reliable information about where things really stand, leading to a rollercoaster effect of optimism and pessimism, as the negotiations refuse to be plotted on a steady, rising line of progress. Exactly as negotiations are wont to do.

So are we on the cusp of an intense final push that will bring long-awaited labor peace to the NFL for the better part of the next decade, or will Thursday and the coming negotiation sessions just bring more of the same monotonous push and pull we've seen since this stand-off began months and months ago?

I spent Wednesday posing questions like those to sources within the NFL, asking in essence if the league and its players are on the 5-yard line of this long and arduous march toward a deal, or if this particular drive still threatens to come up short and potentially wreck the 2011 season. If there was a consensus opinion, it might have been that both scenarios remain possible, with perhaps a slight quibble over how favorable the current field position should be characterized.

"I'd say that back in March, we weren't in the same stadium," said one league source of the players and owners. "But if you think of both sides as a team, now we're in the red zone, we're driving, we can see the goal line and we have momentum. But can we still screw it up? Absolutely. That's why tomorrow and Friday are big days, because it's back to the (negotiating) formula that's been most successful.''

Here are some meaningful nuggets of information I gleaned as crunch time approaches in the NFL's labor battle:

• The key negotiation sessions scheduled for Thursday and Friday are expected to include only NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and five owners, as well as NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and five players. That's a very positive sign, because it's the six-on-six, face-to-face formula that has resulted in most of the progress that has been made in these talks, with the principles in one room, and the lawyers and accountants for both sides meeting in a separate room. Reflecting the mounting sense of urgency on both sides, this set of talks is scheduled to continue indefinitely if progress is being made. No more weekend breaks are expected unless negotiations founder.

• While it has been presumed that the two sides would have to have a deal in place by July 15 in order to play the entire preseason schedule, it is now thought that only the Aug. 7 Hall of Fame Game between the Rams and Bears would have to be sacrificed if an agreement came together as late as July 22. Saving 64 of the league's 65-game preseason schedule would be considered a satisfactory success rate and would not severely dent the estimated $800 million of revenue that's at stake in the preseason.

• Attorneys for both sides met Tuesday and Wednesday to draft contract language and the necessary paperwork that would be part of any potential CBA -- sort of building the framework for a deal with many key details to be added later -- but in truth that process started weeks ago with a document exchange, a league source said. It's another indication that significant progress has been made for a while now, and that once the big question of the overall revenue split between owners and players gets set in stone, many other dominoes involved in the deal will quickly fall in line.

"It does feel like we're at the 5-yard line, and we're right there,'' one NFL general manager said Wednesday. "But it's like Jerome Bettis has the ball, and I've seen him fumble on the 1-yard line before. If there's a fumble now, hopefully either Goodell or Smith plays Ben Roethlisberger and stops the whole thing from falling apart.''

The biggest cause for optimism that this round of talks will succeed, league sources said, is that the right people are doing the direct negotiating. The owners and players have become comfortable with each other, as well as the back and forth between the two sides, as have Goodell and Smith. As one source said: "I wouldn't underestimate the value of the people in the room. It's very important.''

Said another NFL general manager: "I'm optimistic because they're having discussions, and then they're going back in and having more discussions. You don't do that unless both sides feel like there's an opportunity. You don't do it to just spin your wheels. The most positive thing I've read, whether it's true or not, is that the lawyers are not the negotiators. Getting them out of the mix is the best thing I've heard.''

There's plenty of work that remains in the final stages of this CBA negotiation, of course. There's the issue of where the players' slice of the total revenue split will wind up (between 46 and 48 percent), how to institute a new rookie wage scale, re-tool the league's drug enforcement program, and deal with the financial concerns and issues of the league's retired players through the proposed Legacy Fund.

But if there's an issue that could still pose trouble for the last mile of this marathon it's that some within league circles believe NFLPA attorney Jeffrey Kessler would rather ligitate this fight than negotiate it, and that his goal is to delay any potential agreement until the 8th District Court rules on the NFL's right to indefinitely lock out its players. Whether or not Kessler is in the room for the most pivotal stages of the coming negotiations, or Smith and the players take control and move to cut the final deal, could be a tell tale indicator of whether these talks finally produce a settlement.

"There's still a decent amount of work to do, but you just don't know where all the potential pitfalls are in what remains to the negotiations,'' said one veteran NFL club executive. "Really only the people in the room know where they are. There's a chance that maybe some of the optimism is just based on the timeline, and people figuring out that if we're going to get up and running, it's got to get done soon.

"I'm hoping to be cautiously optimistic. But I think that's because both sides have confidence in the people in the room, that it'll get done. But I don't know how much people really know right now. There's more conjecture than anything else. I would equate it to the draft. About half of what you hear is true, and half is garbage. That's why it's dangerous to say you're at the 5-yard line when you may be at the 15. There are a lot of moving parts to this.''

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