Signs continue to point to pending NFL labor deal

In mid-June, a source with intimate knowledge of the NFL labor negotiations told me a settlement before the start of the season was nearly a forgone conclusion. He was so enthused by the progress being made he said a deal could be hammered out with plenty of time for free agency (albeit slightly rushed) before the scheduled opening of training camps next month.

A June 30 or July 4 announcement [of a new collective bargaining agreement] is a reasonable expectation,” the source said.

Well, Thursday is June 30 and the owners and the players continue to display new reasons to believe that initial, ambitious timeline is still possible. June 30 seems a bit optimistic at this point, but July 4 for a new labor deal? On America’s birthday can America get the gift of a return of America’s game?

Maybe. Maybe not. Just know this: If not by Monday, then there are few signs it’ll be much longer.

Lawyers for both sides are in the middle of a scheduled three-day session in Minnesota, with a willingness to carry over until Friday, according to NFL Network. Actual owners and players were out of the room through Wednesday, a sign, perhaps, that it was just the details that needed hashing out.

According to various published reports, select owners and players, not to mention NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith, will join the session Thursday, perhaps even a better sign. The lawyers probably aren’t calling back their clients for bad news.

A month ago the NFL labor situation was full of doom and gloom predictions of a long, hot summer that would threaten the Sept. 8 start to the season.

Now everyone is fairly confident, even if the public relations plan remains to downplay talk of impending deals.

If the lockout ends soon, the NFL will have solved its three-plus month labor dispute with the sole casualties being some organized team activities and rookie camps. If so, it won’t be long until this entire ordeal will soon be forgotten.

Really the sides have until July 15 to reach a deal and not have any noticeable, tangible impact on the season. That would allow a frenzied 8-10 day free-agent period before the Chicago Bears and St. Louis Rams have to start camp for the Aug. 7 Hall of Fame game in Canton, Ohio. The other 30 teams would begin training camp about a week later.

If anything, the condensed schedule with teams making major additions right on the eve of camp should increase interest for the season. Leave it to the NFL to find a marketing surge out of this.

Of course, the two sides have to get there still.

Whether we can get a holiday weekend announcement is uncertain. Progress is likely ebbing and flowing by the minute. The signs, however, are all there. The aforementioned source believes the financial breakdown is all but settled, which would remove the biggest obstacle to a solution.

Goodell and Smith appeared together Wednesday at the NFL Players Association’s rookie symposium in Sarasota, Fla., and were so cheery they not only had breakfast together but held a joint news conference.

“I am thrilled Roger could come down with us and talk to the rookies in a very good, direct way,” Smith said.

Roger is currently locking out Smith’s rookies, mind you.

Each man knows that if this falls through now, he’ll be scalded with criticism, which is just one more reason to believe it won’t.

DeMaurice Smith (right) and Roger Goodell enjoy a light moment in Florida on Wednesday.
(AP Photo)

How this went from bleak to bright so quickly likely won’t be told until it’s over and the court’s gag order is lifted.

If the NFL returns while you’re enjoying long weekend cookouts though, feel free to raise a toast to Kermit Bye, the presiding judge of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

Bye stepped up as the legal wrangling was getting out of hand. Both sides were saying they needed to see where the Brady v. NFL antitrust suit was headed before assessing who would gain leverage in negotiations. On June 3, Bye strongly encouraged the two sides to reach an agreement outside of the court system, warning that if left in the hand of judges the result may be something neither side would find agreeable.

“That’s when the sides got real with each other,” the aforementioned source said two-plus weeks ago. “When the deadline loomed large, they started to work on the real issues.”

There is clearly work to be done and issues to be addressed. One potential wrench in the system is addressing the concerns of retired players, who through Hall of Famer Carl Eller became a party in the Brady lawsuit.

No, the NFL isn’t back yet.

Hope reigns, though. They’re in the red zone. Goodell and Smith are smiling in Florida. The lawyers are holed up in Minnesota working. Everyone is saying nice things for a change.

Maybe, just maybe, here comes a deal, born by the Fourth of July.

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Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Wednesday, Jun 29, 2011