Sources: NFL deal not as close as Brees suggests

For those frustrated football fans who are living and dying with real-time reports on the status of NFL labor negotiations, the word close has become an emotional switchblade that taunts, tantalizes and tortures.

After a recent spate of proclamations from journalists at various outlets that NFL owners and players are nearly done negotiating a settlement to the Tom Brady(notes) et al antitrust lawsuit and a new collective bargaining agreement, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees(notes) – a Brady plaintiff and NFL Players Association executive committee member – ramped up the hype on Wednesday, telling San Diego's XX sports radio, "We're very close to a settlement. We're at that point in the negotiations where there's just a few more details to be ironed out."

Brees is right – the two sides are close to a settlement, in the same way that the Pittsburgh Steelers were close to winning Super Bowl XLV, John Kerry was close to winning the 2004 presidential election and Brazil was close to beating the U.S. in the Women's World Cup quarterfinals.

It's certainly possible that the two sides could come to a tentative agreement within the next week, allowing the owners to vote on it during their July 21 meeting in Atlanta and the lockout to be lifted in time for a full preseason schedule. Yet to suggest that such an outcome is a formality – and that the basic framework of a deal is essentially in place – is nowhere close to accurate.

At least, not according to what I'm being told by numerous sources familiar with the state of negotiations, one of whom was in the room for Wednesday's lengthy sessions in New York.

"Are we close? I wouldn't say that at all," said one NFLPA executive committee member. "Drew is the eternal optimist, and yeah, it's closer than it was a week ago. Could it happen quickly? Yes. But I'd be extremely surprised."

Another source on the players' side said of Brees' comments, "Don't read too much into that. We're not there yet, and there are still a lot of issues in play."

Though it has been widely reported that a disagreement over the rookie wage scale is the only remaining roadblock to a settlement, both quoted sources indicated otherwise Wednesday, saying the two sides are still quarreling over the precise composition of the all revenue pie that would be split between them under the terms of a new CBA.

Additionally, they indicated, owners still insist that a "legacy fund" for retired players come out of the salary cap, meaning current players would bear the entire burden. There are additional arguments over how many right-of-first-refusal devices each team will be allowed via franchise and transition tags. The owners' desire to increase the regular season from 16 to 18 games hasn't been addressed in weeks, and players are unsure whether the subject will be revisited or tabled for discussion in future years.

NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith enters a Manhattan law office, Wednesday.
(AP Photo)

Finally, there has been no official negotiation on issues relating to health care and player safety, largely because the decertified NFLPA technically is prohibited from handling such matters for the membership. Until that complication can be circumvented, possibly via a waiver from the owners, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and his team won't be able to make any progress on a negotiating point that is near and dear to the hearts of many of their constituents.

"We had an internal-update conference call earlier [Wednesday]," the executive-committee member said, "and [player reps] were asking, 'When are we gonna talk about the stuff that's important to the players, that affects us the most?' Technically, that can't be negotiated right now, and it might be the thing guys care about most. I don't know exactly how it's going to be broached in negotiations, but it obviously needs to be addressed."

Given that Brees understands all of this, why did he make a point of busting out the C-word on Wednesday? Brees, I believe, portrayed the state of settlement talks as "close" as a means of expressing his frustration with the current state of affairs and pressuring the owners to make compromises toward finalizing a deal.

Negotiators for the players are convinced that the spate of recent reports characterizing a deal as imminent were initiated by anonymous sources on the owners' side, the theory being that creating a public expectation of inevitability would pressure the players to yield on their remaining issues in order to ensure that a deal is finished in time for the start of training camp.

Sources said Brees appeared to be pulling the same move in reverse on Wednesday, essentially trying to put the onus on the owners. It's significant that Brees, in conjunction with co-plaintiffs and fellow star quarterbacks Brady and Peyton Manning(notes), issued a joint statement Wednesday morning declaring that "it is time" to get a deal done.

"We believe the overall proposal made by the players is fair for both sides, and it is time to get this deal done," the statement read. "This is the time of year we as players turn our attention to the game on the field. We hope the owners feel the same way."

Translation: We've made a lot of concessions; now it's your turn.

As Brees said in the XX interview: "They've talked a lot here over the last week about how, 'We're going to get a deal done before the 21st, for the meetings.' Well, now the ball's in their court because we have a very fair proposal."

If Brees was trying to send a message via the statement and his radio interview, it worked: According to the source who attended Wednesday's negotiating sessions in New York, several people on the owners' side of the table made note of Brees' comments, with one asking, "What the hell was that?"

In other words, there still is enough tension – and conflict – to keep a settlement from being reasonably depicted as a fait accompli.

Whether it's close remains in the eye of the beholder.

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