It's not quite make or break time in the NFL's months-long labor fight, but that critical point figures to be clearly visible from where the league owners stand once they convene in Chicago for one or perhaps two days of meetings that start Tuesday near O'Hare International Airport.
This isn't the week a long-awaited deal gets done between the league and its players, but it is the week a potential agreement could be undone if enough owners don't like the details that come forth in what is expected to be a full-throated hearing on where the labor negotiations stand and where they're headed.
As one league source put it last week: "It's a very important meeting, but not because a deal's going to be voted on. There's no deal. But this is one of the final steps to getting a deal. It's sort of the cards being put on the table.''
In other words, the framework of a new labor agreement will be presented to the full ownership for the first time, and then all 32 clubs will be allowed to pick it apart for potential problems, dive into the details in depth, and propose changes they view as pivotal to their support. How long that crucial process takes is anyone's guess, which is why the league has asked all owners to be prepared to go into Tuesday evening and even stay over until Wednesday to continue the discussion and debate.
Though the progress that has been made in recent negotiation sessions with the players is still described as "fragile'' by a league source, the makings of a deal that would allow for free agency to start in July and salvage the entire preseason schedule continues to incubate. But this week poses a major hurdle to those hopes and that timetable because all 32 owners will have the opportunity to examine the facts and perhaps read the fine print that they hurriedly skipped over in 2006, at the close of the last CBA negotiation.
There's cautious optimism within the league and among the players because the weeks and months of trying to score debating points in the eyes of the fans and media appear over, and the practice of tough, give-and-take negotiating has replaced it. That's progress, and the hope is that this week's confab can move the ball forward and produce some kind of consensus among the owners as to what a final deal will look like.
"People are starting to ask questions and say things like, 'If I'm going to do this, I'm going to need this or that,' or 'Can we do this, because of that?'' 'the league source said. "So when you start getting to those kind of questions, that's a good sign. This is a chance for everyone to have their say and get their questions answered.''
Getting owners comfortable and familiar with the nitty-gritty details of where a collective bargaining agreement will likely end up is the Herculean task facing NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league's negotiating team in Chicago. But it won't be entirely up to Goodell to "sell'' a deal to his employers. Influential owners like John Mara of the Giants, Robert Kraft of the Patriots and Jerry Richardson of the Panthers are expected to play key roles in taking temperature readings of their fellow owners, and conducting behind-the-scenes conversations that won't occur during the league's formal sessions at the Westin Hotel-O'Hare.
Owners this week need to wrap their hands around facts such as how closely a new deal will resemble the CBA terms they opted out of in 2008, the operational plan of how and when free agency will be conducted in the wake of an agreement, and the specific structure of how owners and players will share in potential TV revenues after the current contract expires following the 2013 season. Many different constituencies must be addressed and considered by Goodell and Co., including those perceived hard-line/small-market owners such as Buffalo's Ralph Wilson and Cincinnati's Mike Brown, who alone voted against the 2006 CBA proposal and later complained that they weren't even given time to understand that document.
"They need to all have the facts of where we are and where we think we're headed,'' a second league source said. "You start by answering questions and getting people comfortable with what [a deal] may be, and what it may not be. Some owners may feel it's not the right deal, and they want to hear more about it. You have to weigh and consider the concerns about the economy. Some people are assuming we're going to double the TV revenue in a few years, but others are saying, wait a second, a lot of people are preaching doom and gloom in regards to the national economy.''
It would take nine of the 32 owners to block any potential deal with the players, and it's almost certain the voices and objections of owners like Wilson and Brown will be taken a bit more seriously this time around, given their apparent foresight in 2006. Though no formal vote is expected this week, momentum toward a deal could clearly be stalled if there's enough organized opposition to what Goodell and the negotiating team presents.
"This would be the forum for saying, 'Let's take our time and not make the mistake of 2006,' which was sort of to get rushed,'' a league source said. "I don't think anyone's trying to just slow things down. I just think these guys got burned and they want to go through it in a level of detail that they neglected in 2006. They want to do a deep dive on the facts of whatever's out there, and if that takes time, so be it.''
That said, the majority of owners are believed to feel that the first significant deadline in salvaging the entire 2011 season is fast approaching. Striking a deal and starting free agency by July 15 would allow for training camp and the preseason to unfold as usual, and the NFL is said to have $700 million-plus of potential lost income if it doesn't. That would obviously mean owners will be positioned to give the players their best possible deal if a full preseason occurs.
Publicly the NFL owners are expected to say next to nothing coming out of their meeting, but it's a silence that might be golden for football fans. The only progress the two sides have made has seemingly come when the news leaks have been all but non-existent, and the league is imploring owners to not drop the ball at this late stage. Though there have been reports that the players may have representatives in Chicago and are willing to negotiate there, it's more likely that any talks would be held only after the owners meeting concludes.
If the sides reconvene this week and negotiations resume, it's probably a solid sign that the owners reached a consensus among themselves and are prepared to move forward. The key to the league getting a deal done with its players could be as simple as making sure nothing comes undone this week in Chicago.