In the NFL, nothing dealing with dollars gets done until a deadline arrives, and the league's ongoing labor fight has only hardened that reputation for procrastination and last-minute deal-making.
But deadlines do eventually come, and it's almost time for the NFL and its players to solve their four-month-plus labor impasse. Otherwise the first significant financial ramifications will be felt. Already the Aug. 7 Hall of Fame Game preseason opener looks to be a likely casualty of the owners' lockout. And if the NFL and its players do not reach a labor settlement in the next four to six days, the first full week of the 2011 preseason schedule and the revenue that comes with it could be next.
The good news is that league sources indicate a deal is within reach, and that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could seek to have the owners sign off on an agreement in principle as early as this Sunday, in order to have a vote taken on the settlement at next Thursday's one-day league meeting in Atlanta (July 21). The bad news is we've heard that kind of optimistic timetable for a while now, and still there's no deal in place, thanks to some big issues that remain unresolved.
After talking to sources the past few days, here's how I think the next week or so could play out and what's left to deal with before the end game of the labor war occurs:
• The five or six principal negotiators for both the league and the players resumed face-to-face talks on Wednesday in New York, where over the next three days they will wrestle with the largest remaining issue that divides the two sides: The specifics of a rookie wage scale that both owners and players favor, but not in the same format. The difference between what the owners and the players want isn't insignificant, but they're not far apart financially in their disagreement over how much to pay first-round picks in the fifth year of their rookie contracts. The issue is not seen as a likely deal-breaker for the overall CBA talks -- even if the game's top-tier agents are united against that component of the wage scale.
• Another matter that still must be negotiated at some point is the owners' request this year to have as many as three right of first refusals per team for their own unrestricted free agents, in order to minimize the glut of players eligible for free agency once the CBA again reverts to 2009, or salary-cap era rules. No one on either side should realistically expect the players to surrender that bargaining chip, which would basically gut this year's free agency class and keep 96 of the game's elite players on the sidelines during the NFL's personnel shopping season. The players might be willing to throw the owners a bone and give them one right of first refusal per team for this year only, but in any case, the league is not thought to be ready to go to the wall and delay a labor settlement over the issue.
• The two critical dates on next week's schedule are on Tuesday, when both sides are due in Minneapolis to negotiate once again with court-appointed mediator Arthur Boylan -- he's on vacation this week and not taking part in the talks in person -- and then on Thursday, when the league owners will convene in Atlanta.
Sources say Goodell will have a "heightened sense of urgency'' in the talks on Monday and Tuesday of next week, because it'll be his last chance to have something done and committed to paper in order to present a settlement proposal to the owners on Thursday in Atlanta. Goodell does not want a repeat of the end game to the '06 CBA settlement, when some owners felt like they were asked to vote on the proposal before they had even fully read and digested its contents.
Goodell wants transparency regarding the deal, and will open it up to be fully discussed, debated and vetted in Atlanta, with all owners getting their fair say. But it is also known that he will not bring the deal up for a vote unless he is certain he has the necessary 24 of 32 votes for passage. That's why sources say the commissioner intends to know if he has a firm commitment for a deal by Sunday, or Tuesday night at the very latest, before getting to Atlanta.
"After Tuesday, with no deal in place, it's probably a very different kind of owners meeting,'' a league source said. "It's about canceling that first week of preseason games. It's the first time there's a tangible deadline where someone has to say, 'This is it.' Soon after that, money starts disappearing for both sides.''
• Though no official decision has been made, the Hall of Fame Game between the Bears and Rams in Canton, Ohio, is very much in jeopardy, due to the timetable of how long the CBA ratification process is expected to take. Realistically the Hall of Fame Game probably needed a labor deal to be struck by Friday of this week in order to remain on the preseason schedule, and that's not considered likely in any scenario.
The league is sensitive to the player safety issue of having the Bears and Rams take part in the game without being in training camp for close to two weeks before the game, and it's unlikely a deal can be reached and ratified by both sides in time for those clubs to report by July 24 or so. The financial impact of losing the game and the NBC telecast is not said to be great, but the league estimates that between $100 million and $200 million would be lost for every full weekend of preseason action canceled.
The trickiest part of the coming days may be getting both sides, after months, and even years, of working on this labor deal, to the altar and ready to commit long term. With the thorniest issue of the revenue split between owners and players largely settled already (players are to get roughly 47 percent of total revenue), matters like a final resolution to the rookie wage scale, right of first refusal and how to fund the increased benefit package to the game's retired players might be dealt with in a final end-of-the-deal bargaining session that includes both sides trading chips.
"The only real deal-breaker remaining is probably just the whole deal,'' one league source said. "Meaning someone getting mad enough to walk away from the whole thing. Because with the big question of the revenue component basically agreed to, the individual elements are fairly solid.
"Overall it's matter of both sides deciding when do we do the final bargaining? Someone has to determine when that final meeting is, and when people reveal their final hands. No one's going to get everything they want in this deal, and both sides know that. The last four or five days is about understanding that, getting their arms around it, and getting that handshake.''
For the first time in this long and messy standoff, a real deadline involving real dollars that could serve to motivate both sides is fast approaching. If a new labor deal emerges in the coming week because of it, consider it deadline-beating business as usual in the NFL.