ROSEMONT, Ill. – Now that NFL owners appear to have cleared a significant hurdle on the way to labor peace with the players, the question for the league is simple: How fast can they get the league year started?
The short answer is sometime on or just before July 15. By that point, the league may be reopen for business on a permanent basis, meaning free agents could get signed and draft picks could start to meet with coaches for the first time in hopes of catching up as much as possible by the start of training camp.
"That kind of timeline is altogether possible," a source on the owners' side said Tuesday after the owners spent a little less than six hours hearing from Commissioner Roger Goodell about the state of the collective bargaining agreement talks with the players. Just as important, the owners were given a chance to object to the basic concepts put before them. The league went so far as to give the owners an extra day to discuss the negotiations.
In the end, the meeting became a day trip.
Commissioner Roger Goodell had good reason to sport a big smile Tuesday.
(Ben Liebenberg/US Presswire)
While Goodell cautioned reporters not to read too much into that, it was taken as a good sign by most. Furthermore, the wide grin on New York Giants owner John Mara's face was a pretty good tell about the state of the talks. In recent months, Mara's face has been etched with a dour look, such as in March when talks between the owners and the players broke down, and the CBA expired.
Mara repeatedly refused to comment on the mediations and the meeting of the owners, saying that he and the rest of the owners were under court order not to say anything. Goodell was nearly as hard to pin down, but part of that was based on the fact that the players have to go through the same process. If the owners start to present too strong a front, it could be taken as presumptuous by players. At this point, any sense of overconfidence could throw the process in reverse.
"We have a very strong view of the priorities … ownership is unified," Goodell said.
Overall, the two sides have a preliminary agreement that all money will be split by a simple division, the players getting 48 percent and the owners getting 52 percent. While the players have technically taken a cut in their overall share of the revenue, the owners have agreed to guarantees that will essentially assure that teams will spend a higher minimum amount of money (90 percent of the salary cap) each year.
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Additionally, retired NFL player Carl Eller met with four owners Tuesday morning to get assurances that the group of retirees he represents will get better health and disability benefits. Although Eller's suit was grouped with the Brady et al v. NFL case, Eller's group still has a say over the settlement and, ultimately, the eventual new collective bargaining agreement.
"The purpose of the meeting on Tuesday was to make clear that the bicycle has to turn into a tricycle," said attorney Michael Hausfeld, who is representing Eller in his case. "The retirees are going to have a say in the process once this is over."
While that could throw a wrench in the process, the source on the owners' side and two others indicated that getting past the owners on Tuesday was the major obstacle. On Wednesday, the players will hold their own meeting in Boston and then are expected to meet with owners later in the day and again Thursday to continue hammering out the deal.
"At this point, you could probably have the terms drawn up by Friday if you wanted to really hurry the process, but two weeks is probably more realistic," said the source on the owners' side. "Two weeks for the paperwork is pretty reasonable."
There are other steps along the way. For instance, all of the parties involved will have to meet with Minnesota District Judge Susan Richard Nelson to seek preliminary settlement of the class-action lawsuits brought by current players such as Tom Brady(notes), Drew Brees(notes) and Peyton Manning(notes) and former players such as Eller. After that, the league will have the NFL Players Association recertify as a union and the owners will have to reconvene to give the agreement final approval. Given all those steps, the July 15 date starts to look more and more realistic.
"You'd like it to be as early as possible," one team executive said. "Like I said before, I'd like to get started this week, but we know that's not happening. The way everybody seems to be talking, mid-July is what we're all hoping for."
What that means is free agency figures to be fast and furious. The basic rules of free agency aren't expected to change, meaning that players with at least four years of experience who are not currently under contract will become unrestricted free agents.
That means players such as Nnamdi Asomugha(notes), Antonio Cromartie(notes), Santonio Holmes(notes) and DeAngelo Williams(notes) will head one of the deepest classes of free agents in NFL history. The depth of free agency is primarily because so many players from 2010 weren't allowed to hit the market when the rules changed, requiring players to have at least six years of service before becoming unrestricted free agents.
While the depth of this free-agent class is subject to debate, the important part is that free agency may soon start, replacing the boring details of a labor dispute.