NEW YORK -- NFL players and owners arrived at 9 a.m. ET for Friday's labor negotiations, with an eye on building off momentum gathered during Thursday's marathon session.
Friday is also July 15 -- the date where some internal deadlines to save the preseason in its natural form have sat for months. With the league's objective of presenting the full ownership group a completed proposal in Atlanta next Thursday, that deadline may be flexible, but the urgency has been turned up.
The parties achieved the single biggest breakthrough they've needed over the last two weeks, closing in on agreement on the rookie compensation system on Thursday.
The result, it appears, is that the economics of the deal are, essentially, done. A lot of details remain, though it's hard to envision those left standing in the way of a deal.
While the institution of rookie compensation system is a concession in itself, the players side gave a little more in allowing some rules preventing the renegotiation of draft pick's deals until after three years. The owners' concessions came on the price tag for the fifth-year option for first-round picks, which the players want paid at the top of the market.
With that hurdle cleared, two sources said Thursday night "We're not there yet," and one referred to the remaining issues as "real stumbling blocks."
According to an involved source, the remaining issues between the owners and players are being dealt with collectively. The process isn't linear, and the parties aren't simply checking items off a list, with each issue affecting others.
Primary among the unresolved problems are the Legacy Fund (retirees benefits), player safety, worker's compensation and injury guarantees, and also litigation entanglements that must be taken care of.
The parties must work on language to settle the Brady antitrust suit and any plaintiff damages, as well as address the looming decision by Judge David Doty in the television rights fee case. And no deal can be complete until the owners and players address the issue of whether now, and how, the NFL Players Association re-constitutes as a labor union.
But the major tenets of the deal are in place, and whether it's completed this weekend or next week, there's a prevailing sense for both parties that they finally are nearing an agreement.
And just as the owners need to vote, the players will as well, something NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith pointed out on his way in on Friday.
"I know our fans are frustrated and want to get it done," Smith said. "We'll get everything to the players when the time is right."
But based on Thursday's progress, following a tough Wednesday between players and owners and two difficult negotiation days last week, there is a feeling that the owners' goal of a July 21 vote is increasingly realistic.
With that push as the backdrop, the league group grew by one on Friday, with Bengals owner Mike Brown arriving in town. That makes nine of 10 members of the labor committee in town. Co-chair Pat Bowlen of the Broncos was in Hawaii on Thursday, and was trying to arrange to come to New York, but hasn't arrived yet. He's participating via conference call.
The players group also grew by one, with Texans tackle Eric Winston joining the NFLPA contingent.
Even with several issues left to resolve, a solution to the rookie compensation system will provide a critical step toward expediting the process before the parties can agree to terms and begin drawing up legal documents. One source estimated that if full closure on rookie compensation was reached Thursday, there was "a 50-50 chance" the parties could have a handshake deal in place to present to U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan, who's on vacation this week, at their scheduled mediation in Minneapolis on Tuesday, two days before the owners' meeting in Atlanta.
The owners and players put several issues to bed Thursday before breaking for the night, according to sources with direct knowledge of the talks. Those issues included re-addressing the commissioner's power via discipline. A panel of former judges will oversee special master and other decisions, but specifically how commissioner discipline issues are appealed hasn't yet been resolved, though it's "trending" toward a decision, sources said.
Also, salary-cap details became clear -- the 2011 projected cap will be roughly $123 million, according to sources, but as a practical matter will "feel" more like $130 million to teams when cap credits and new cap exceptions are factored. And teams will have to spend, in cash, 90 percent to the cap minimum, and league-wide spending will be pegged at 99 percent to the cap.