As NFL owners gathered for their meeting in Atlanta, their lead negotiator, Jeff Pash, said he expected the league and its players to continue working toward separate Thursday votes on a new collective bargaining agreement that would end the four-month-old lockout.
"It's obviously a complicated agreement, but I think both sides are at the point where they can close, they should close, and we should be in a position to take votes," Pash said Wednesday.
The 32 player representatives did vote Wednesday at the NFL Players Association's headquarters in Washington, but it wasn't the type of vote that was expected. Instead of simply approving the draft that lawyers and staff had been working on for the last month, the reps conditionally passed it to the Brady plaintiffs, sources told NFL Network reporter Albert Breer.
In other words, the proposal will go to the 10 plaintiffs involved in the Brady antitrust case only if the league meets certain conditions in settling that piece of litigation, and also the TV rights fees case, in which players accused owners of setting up a $4 billion lockout-insurance fund.
"We still have a lot of work to do," Atlanta Falcons offensive lineman Tyson Clabo told The Associated Press as he left the nearly 10-hour meeting.
The players also empowered NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, their legal counsel and the 13-man executive committee to work out the remaining issues, according to sources. One is the players' pursuit of $320 million in benefits lost as part of the 2010 uncapped-year rules, which were negotiated in the 2006 labor deal.
The good news is, outside of a few minor issues, the players were amenable to terms that would serve as a new labor deal, should the NFLPA re-certify as a union. The Brady plantiffs -- which include quarterbacks Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees -- also would have to sign off for any settlement to be reached.
"I think that's the healthy outcome," Pash said, "to have a complete, comprehensive, global agreement that settles all the disputes and puts us on a path where we are going forward together as business partners, the way it should be, rather that going forward with one hand and fighting over something that should be in the past."
The NFLPA executive committee will not recommend that player reps vote on any deal until both lawsuits are resolved, multiple sources told NFL Network insider Jason La Canfora, and it's unknown when that will be.
Pash said he wasn't worried about the players' decision on Wednesday.
"It doesn't impact it at all," Pash said. "We're going to continue to work with the players. We'll find out if there are issues that still need to be negotiated, and we're going to work cooperatively with them through the evening and try to have something in place that both sides can vote on tomorrow morning."
Members of the NFL's labor committee will discuss any concerns and go over any questions with lawyers and members of the NFLPA, if needed. And a future vote by player reps could be taken via conference call or other means.
"I can't speak for what was going on in their caucus, but it's a long, complicated agreement, and there are a lot of issues," Pash said. "We're talking about entering into an agreement that would last for quite a few years, hopefully bring a lot of stability to our relationship for many years to come, and understandably, that is something that people want to take their time and think through."
Before Wednesday's meeting, NFLPA president Kevin Mawae cautioned not to assume the lockout will be over by the weekend, saying his group was "not tied" to a deadline for having a deal done by Thursday.
"We want to go back to work, but we will not agree to a deal unless it's the best deal for the players," Mawae said.
"Our goal today is to see what is on the table and discuss outlying issues," he added. "The players are not tied to a July 21 timeline. Our timeline is that which gives us the best deal for the players -- today, tomorrow or whatever it might be."
If the lockout is going to end in time to keep the preseason completely intact, the parties almost certainly must ratify the deal by Thursday. The St. Louis Rams and Chicago Bears are scheduled to open the preseason Aug. 7 in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio -- leaving the league and players a timeline that Pash called "tight."
"It would be pretty challenging," Pash said when asked if the game will be played. "That's one of the things we'll have to focus on."
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and nine of the 10 members of the labor committee gathered at an Atlanta airport hotel Wednesday to go over the final terms of a settlement that lawyers have been hashing out for weeks. The owners broke up for the evening, but Goodell, members of the NFL legal team and Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones remained to continue talks.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who is on the labor committee, didn't participate in the five-hour meeting because his wife died Wednesday after a battle with cancer.
Kraft's son, Patriots president Jonathan Kraft, will represent the family at Thursday's meeting, which is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. ET. Jonathan Kraft will return home Friday for his mother's funeral service, according to the team.
If owners do vote Thursday, at least 24 would need to OK the deal. If it's also passed by the players, team executives would be schooled later that day and Friday in Atlanta in the guidelines and how to apply them. Topics would include the 2011 NFL calendar, rookie salary system and new free-agency rules.
Several coaches and general managers have said they hope players can report to team facilities immediately to take physicals and get re-acquainted. Training camps would start as soon as next week if a deal is ratified, and teams would like a few days to iron out those details before taking the field.
A frenzy of player activity, maybe unprecedented, also is in store. Teams should learn soon how quickly they can sign draft picks, negotiate with their own free agents, sign undrafted rookies, make trades, cut players and sign free agents.
NFL Network reporter Albert Breer, NFL Network insider Jason La Canfora, NFL.com senior writer Steve Wyche and The Associated Press contributed to this report.