NFL owners voted on Thursday evening to ratify a proposal to end the lockout, the first step in ending the longest work stoppage in NFL history.
The final vote was 31-0 with Oakland Raiders abstaining, according to a source inside the room. The focus will next shift to the players, who will also have to ratify the proposal.
NFL.com senior writer Steve Wyche reported that a football operations meeting will start Friday at 8 a.m. ET, according to a league source.
NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith implied not to expect a Thursday vote from the players, going as far as to suggest that recertifying the union -- a necessary step toward an agreement -- wasn't imminent.
"Here in America, every time an employee makes that decision about whether he wants to be a part of a union, it's something that is serious, significant and should be done in a very sober way," Smith said.
Smith said recertification is a serious issue that the players will consider individually.
"I certainly remember comments from some of the owners about how we may not even be a real union," Smith said. "Well, guess what? The decision to decertify was important because at the time we were a real union. And the decision for our players, as men, to come back as a union is going to be an equally serious and sober one that they have to make."
One of the things being discussed in terms of a settlement is how and when the NFLPA would recertify as a union. Player sources indicated to NFL Network insider Jason La Canfora that the NFLPA wants to use a system of signed cards and follow certain bylaws in order to recertify.
The issue between the parties is mainly one of time, specifically how long it would take to collect approximately 1,900 signatures. Getting those signatures takes time, and the league obviously is looking to open for business as soon as possible. There is the possibility the National Labor Relations Board could help speed things up, even if the recertification process is done by actual signature.
The parties also could come to a compromise, according to a source, whereby the lockout is lifted before a full global settlement is reached -- which would have to include recertification in order to have a full CBA -- to allow players to report in the interim.
That would make it easier to collect signatures and cards of players currently under contract since they would be centrally located at team facilities. If that takes place, in theory, then the signatures needed could be obtained over weekend and allow the league year to begin next week.
Numerous sources told La Canfora that the issue of lifting the lockout in order to allow for recertification votes to take place is one of the final hurdles to overcome. Once that is resolved, there can be a potential settlement that owners would vote on and player reps would recommend to the plaintiffs in the Brady antitrust lawsuit as soon as Thursday night.
It's not the only issue, but it's one potential tradeoff that is being talked about, along with a few other outstanding topics. This horse-trading is commonplace at the end of a deal like this, and the parties definitely made have significant strides on many settlement issues, sources said.
NFL Network insider Michael Lombardi reported that Smith called all 32 player representatives Thursday to tell them to be ready for a 8 p.m. ET conference call. It could be simply to provide an update on any progress on such issues or to initiate a vote on the proposed deal.
Jacksonville Jaguars running back Maurice Jones-Drew told NFL Network the conference call likely will be to educate players on the details of the proposed deal.
"A lot of people have to understand, we're not extending the CBA from prior years or anything like that," Jones-Drew said. "This is 600 pages that we've created (through) negotiations with the owners. So we have to go through a lot of legal documents, a lot of things."
Jones-Drew added: "I've always told people on my radio show, the closer we get, the harder it's going to be. I think both sides have moved very far from where we had our sticking points. Things should be happening here pretty closely, but you can't rush anything like this because it's going to affect the game for years to come, for a decade hopefully."
The six-year veteran preached patience to those eager to see football activities resume.
"We understand fans want to see the game played, and as players, we want to see the game played as well. But we want everything to be correct," Jones-Drew said. "You don't want to rush anything like this, just because of the nature of the business, the money that's involved. A word like 'and,' and a word like 'or' can mean three different things and it could change the whole dynamic of the CBA. So we want to make sure everything is right, and one of the reasons we didn't vote (Wednesday) is because we had some issue that needed to be solved."
Actually, the player reps did vote Wednesday at NFLPA headquarters in Washington, D.C., 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.
The players also empowered 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.
Smith and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell have stayed in close, regular contact throughout negotiations, even at times when the parties weren't meeting. Throughout this week, for instance, Smith and Goodell have held after-hours discussions about the remaining issues, trying to bridge the remaining gaps and forge a global settlement, numerous sources told La Canfora.
The good news is that, outside of a few minor issues, the players are 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.
New England Patriots guard Logan Mankins and San Diego Chargers wide receiver Vincent Jackson, two of the 10 plaintiffs, are holding strong to their request for $10 million as part of the antitrust settlement, sources told Breer on Thursday. That's one of a number of issues that relate to the plaintiffs in that case.
The NFLPA executive committee will not recommend that player reps vote on any deal until both lawsuits are resolved, multiple sources told La Canfora, and it's unknown when that will be.
Before Wednesday's meeting in Washington, 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.
"The players are not tied to a July 21 timeline," he added. "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 NFL general counsel Jeff Pash on Wednesday called "tight."
"It would be pretty challenging," NFL lead counsel Jeff Pash said Wednesday when asked if the game will be played. "That's one of the things we'll have to focus on."
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 in the 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 Network insider Michael Lombardi, NFL.com senior writer Steve Wyche and The Associated Press contributed to this report.