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Miles left to travel, but real progress made in NFL talks

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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It's not time to break out the party hats just yet. Or your team underwear. Or that stinky jersey you tossed into the back of the closet out of frustration from watching rich men and even richer men fighting over billions. But maybe, just maybe, you might want to put that champagne glass, and Fantasy scouting report, within arm's reach.

There is a still a great deal of work to do, and any progress could unravel any day, hour or minute, but it appears NFL owners and players have made significant headway in reaching a new labor agreement, according to multiple sources familiar with the discussions.

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The two sides spending time talking is great news. The cancellation of mediation scheduled next week is great news. Read >>
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One high-ranking member of the former union estimated to me a new deal could be reached within two to three weeks. "This is the most optimistic I've been in many months," he said.

But, like many sources, he urged extreme caution, saying talks could easily break down, and weeks from now we could be back at the beginning, with the name-calling and the ticking clock.

"There's a great deal of animosity to work through," he said.

That's putting it mildly, but in recent days, as training camps approached, and both owners and players saw the frightening but realistic prospect of missed games on the horizon, negotiations have been able to cut through that distrust like a steel-hulled ship through Arctic ice.

In essence, what tore the two sides apart -- money -- might bring them back together. Initially, the fight was about owners and players wanting to keep more of it. Now, they've become civil over the fear of losing it.

These recent talks have been more productive than all the other discussions and mediations combined, the official said. This has allowed the two sides to proceed at a more urgent pace than before.

Jerry Jones is likely eager to get a deal done to avoid lost gate receipts that can help pay for his stadium. (AP)  
Jerry Jones is likely eager to get a deal done to avoid lost gate receipts that can help pay for his stadium. (AP)  
What could slow the progress is the ruling of the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals expected sometime in early July. I'm told both sides may want to wait and see how the court rules on the lockout before finalizing any deal. Progress might also be delayed by good, old-fashioned distrust, which could raise its ugly head at any time.

Nevertheless, progress was definitely made. The largest sign this negotiation was radically more successful than others was the announcement by Judge Arthur Boylan, who canceled mediation set for next week, saying the owners and players were in settlement discussions. The NFL and NFLPA later released a joint statement confirming the two sides had been in talks. Owners and players issuing joint anything is akin to cats and dogs living together.

Based on discussions with several different sources, there are three main reasons there has been some movement. First, and most important, the key lawyers for both sides weren't present during these rounds of talks. Jeff Pash, lawyer for the owners, is particularly despised by trade association officials.

Second, owners with more at stake in the lockout, like New England's Robert Kraft and Jerry Jones from Dallas, have in recent weeks been able to sway some of the more hard-line small-market owners to more moderate positions.

Owners like Jones, who have billion-dollar stadiums, can't afford to miss games, because missed games could potentially lead to missed payments on stadium debt. Kraft and Jones in particular have been very vocal in wanting to get a deal done sooner than later.

Similarly, some players have spoken to NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith over the past few weeks, asking him to step up talks with the owners, and Smith did.

Now the question becomes: Can the owners and players keep the momentum going? Or will months and years of distrust send this dispute back to the courts, where a season would likely be lost?

There is a still a great distance to go, but don't cancel those Fantasy drafts just yet.

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