Thursday's round of NFL-NFLPA labor talks has proceeded in remarkable silence after the outburst of attacks and counter-attacks we saw on Tuesday and Wednesday.
It's hard to read much into quiet, but the fact that the sides have at least refrained from blasting one another through the media is probably a sign of hope that at least the negotiations haven't completely blown up, at least not yet. There's no telling if that will remain the case, though, as the evening goes on and Friday night's deadline approaches.
NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith wrote on Twitter today that players should expect an update by 2 p.m. Friday on the league's labor situation, hinting that some resolution -- either another extension or a doomsday scenario of lockout and decertification -- could arrive by then.
I'm getting ready to head down to DC tomorrow for the grand finale -- or, possibly just grand 'one more extension' -- but wanted to quickly get into a couple developments over the recent days, including the question about whether an 18 game schedule is still possible, the all-important revenue divide and another big issue to watch in the next 24 hours.
-- There have been conflicting reports about whether the union has completely dismissed the idea of an 18-game season. On Wednesday night SI.com quoted NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith as saying the league has never formally proposed an expanded season and saying "more importantly, it's something that our players don't want. Eighteen games is not in the best interest of our players' safety, so we're not doing it."
SI.com used this quote, plus a similar Smith comment to a Washington radio station, to report that the 18-game season is off the table. That would be a big bargaining decision. Until now the union has opposed the expanded season, but always with caveats, opening the door to playing more games if they got something back -- such as improved health benefits, perhaps larger rosters and fewer offseason practices.
Today, however, multiple reports have said the 18-game schedule has not been taken off the table. Smith told a radio station that, in fact, the schedule has been proposed and the players offered a counter that wasn't accepted - which implies that negotiation is still possible.
Count me among those who think an 18-game schedule will lead to more injuries and backups on the field for crucial stretch runs and the playoffs, but the expanded season is important to getting a new CBA. The owners want more money, and they didn't opt out of the CBA and go through all of this trouble with the union to walk away without it. The 18-game season produces more revenue for both sides, and perhaps could reduce the amount that has to come out of players' pockets (though it's a good bet fans eventually pay more). If it goes away, there's that much more of a divide to bridge.
-- The Washington Post and Pro Football Talk have also reported that the revenue divide has fallen below $700 million. Originally the owners had asked for an additional $1 billion from league revenue. That's progress, but still a long way from a deal.
-- Paul Domowitch touched on one other big issue worth keeping an eye on: federal judge David Doty, who oversees appeals of disputes between the NFL and NFLPA. The owners are leery of Doty, who consistently sides with the union, and want a new referee in the new CBA. Doty, meanwhile, would likely hear the case if the union decertifies and tries to block a lockout with legal means. His presence -- and future role -- will be a key to negotiations.
-- We've yet to hear much from the principals today, but two outcomes seem possible Friday: the lockout and decertification (by around 5 p.m. central time) that we have long expected, or another extension that keeps the NFL, free agency and trades in limbo for a bit longer.
Eagles president Joe Banner has been in Washington all week helping the NFL negotiate a number of issues with the players union, including a rookie wage scale. But today he was with the key figures in the entire discussion, arriving at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service building in an Escalade that included Roger Goodell, Art Rooney (of the Steelers) and Clark Hunt (of the Chiefs), according to the NFL Network's Albert Breer.
Banner's presence at the FMCS signals that he will be involved in some critical issues today as the labor dispute teeters toward an all-out war. Several members of the league's labor committee are either in Washington or reported to be on their way. The deadline has brought a number of influential owners or executives back to DC.
All of the signs yesterday were of increasing acrimony between the players and owners with the deadline for a deal now set for Friday. The best anyone can seem to hope for at this point is another deadline extension before the two sides go nuclear and use a lockout and decertification.
Banner has been working on a rookie wage scale, among other issues. Reports yesterday that the scale is a done deal appear premature, though it is one of the less contentious points of negotiation. Both sides want to reduce the amount of money going to unproven rookies, it's just a matter working out the details of how that is done.
More on the labor talks later as a lockout looms Friday.