NFL "secret" labor negotiations this week are expected to continue to make such progress that at least one source familiar with the situation says the framework of a new collective bargaining agreement could be in place by the weekend.
If so, the two negotiating groups representing the owners and the NFL trade association, meeting in the Baltimore area, Yahoo! Sports has learned, would return to their full parties to present what could be the deal that would end the three-month lockout before nearly anything football related is even lost.
"A June 30 or July 4 announcement is a reasonable expectation," the source said. "My sense is that by week's end they are likely to have some substantial framework if not a complete plan to go back and present to the owners and the players."
NFL owners are already set to meet next Tuesday in Chicago. The league sent a memo to owners Monday suggesting they pack for an overnight stay, according to ESPN and the NFL Network. That led to speculation that the league believes it will have something formative to discuss.
The two sides could then return to the bargaining table to hash out any final differences by month's end. Or at least that's the hope.
The source said that negotiations this month have been marked by both comity and urgency. This came after both sides heeded the advice of Kermit Bye, the presiding judge of the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals who strongly encouraged the two sides on June 3 to reach an agreement outside of the court system, where the battle had mostly been waged since the lockout began March 12.
"That's when the sides got real with each other," the source said. "When the deadline loomed large they started to work on the real issues."
There are numerous issues that remain, including a final division of the money, agreements on future television contracts (considering the rapid rise in live sports programming fees, the 2014 deals should produce unprecedented sums) and issues with benefits for retired players, who in the legal circuit are a third, independent party.
This is by no means done. However, a CBSSports.com report Tuesday that the deal was "80-85 percent done" was met with agreement by our source. "I think that's accurate," he said.
The positivity is as welcome as it is unexpected. The two sides seemed hopelessly dug in for the long haul as recently as the start of this month, waiting for legal maneuvering to dictate negotiating strength.
Now if you're a football fan who cares little about who "wins" this labor battle, there is significant hope that you won't miss a single significant part of the season.
NFL teams generally start training camp in late July (with the two teams participating in the Hall of Fame Game beginning a week earlier). General managers have said they need free agency to begin no later than July 15, allowing at least 10 days for a flurry of signings. Anything before would be welcome, allowing two or three weeks of free agency.
The preseason schedule, which is set to kick off Aug. 7 with the Hall of Fame Game, would be unaffected. So too, obviously, would be the start of the regular season on Sept. 8, when the New Orleans Saints are scheduled to visit the Green Bay Packers.
If a deal is done over the next couple weeks, essentially, the lockout could be one forgotten blip to history, no casualties except for meaningless minicamps and organized team activities.
If nothing else, after months of bad news, here's at least some positive talk.