Day 125 of the NFL lockout may have the most encouraging news yet that a resolution to the lockout is actually on the horizon. On Thursday afternoon, several reports from Manhattan indicated that the owners and players made major breakthroughs in the rookie wage scale that has been the major sticking point over the last few weeks. Later in the day, ESPN's Adam Schefter was the first to report that the two sides came to a basic agreement on the broad strokes of the rookie compensation model. Yahoo's own Mike Silver then reported that the owners came through with more money on possible option years in rookie deals.
Most likely, the new compensation structure will allow drafted players to renegotiate their contracts based on performance after three seasons, and undrafted players to do so after two seasons. This will be very good news for guys like Baltimore's Ray Rice, who's set to make $555,000 base salary in the fourth year of his rookie deal. Houston's Arian Foster, the undrafted sensation who led the league in rushing last season, would also agree with this concept. Foster's 2011 base salary in his third NFL season? $480,000. Both sides agree [and have always agreed] that it's not good for the league to have JaMarcus Russell taking $39 million of Al Davis' money for less than nothing in return. On the players' side, this has always been more about the guys on the low end of the food chain being able to climb higher with their production and value.
Over the last three days, both sides have seen their negotiating committees expand. Today, the league was represented by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and eight of the 10 members of the labor committee), and the players had half a dozen player reps and NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith at the table.
During a lunch break in the talks, the news broke that the differences between the two sides in the rookie pay issue had been resolved. No specifics were given, though we know that based on previous reports, the main issue was the number of years in every rookie contract and the ability to negotiate better deals for players selected later in the draft whose production had exceeded their relatively slotted pay scales.
The players had already given up approximately half of the total pay scale per season, and felt that they had reached the limits of their ability to negotiate fairly and reasonably on that issue until something was given back.
Of course, there are ancillary issues to be resolved, as well — where the money siphoned off of rookie player costs will go and whether the owners will match any percentage that goes to the retired players are but two of those matters — but this was the last major hurdle in the way of getting a deal done and agreed to in time for ratification at the July 21 owners meetings in Atlanta.
"We want to be very careful about any ups and downs in this process; there are ebbs and flows to any negotiation," Breer said in a mid-afternoon report. "And yesterday wasn't a good day. The two days last week when the players and owners got together weren't' particularly good days. But it looks like they've finally rebounded. Players and owner have had a much more productive day so far today, I'm told. In fact, I'm told that they've made major progress in solving the rookie salary issue, which is the one big issue left on the table — or, at least, the biggest issue left on the table. And, they're only a couple of minor issues away from maybe solving the thing [the rookie pay scale issue] altogether. That's not to say that the thing would get done, but it is the biggest remaining issue on the table between the two sides. If they can get this thing fixed soon, it's possible that it could give them the momentum they need to close a deal.
"I'm very, very hesitant to use the word 'close' or anything like that here, but this is a big development," he continued. "Getting the rookie salary structure fixed would be huge for these two sides. They've been working for it for three weeks, and it's been a tremendously frustrating subject for all involved."
We'll follow Breer's lead and caution against over-exuberance here after so many false starts, but now that the owners and players have avoided sliding back down the hill after a morning of major progress, Thursday will be known as a huge day in the direction of a full season of NFL football in 2011.