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Moderates Kraft, Mara will be key if season is saved

by | CBSSports.com National Columnist
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The two men have been a soothing force. When temperatures during negotiations have risen, they've calmed them. When the tone turned an ugly corner, they've helped pull things back from the edge. Most of all, owners Robert Kraft and John Mara have earned the trust of the players.

Two men are going to save the NFL owners from themselves. Save the owners from the extremists and the selfish among them. The owners who would burn down the season for a few extra pieces of gold bullion despite the fact they swim naked in cash for giggles.

Kraft (Patriots) and Mara (Giants) are proving to be the cool heads in a chemically imbalanced owner mix of testosterone, absurdly large egos and billable hours.

Bob Kraft is one of the key forces in the 'Gang of Moderates.' (AP)  
Bob Kraft is one of the key forces in the 'Gang of Moderates.' (AP)  
The Kraft/Mara influence has already been felt during what have been -- as you'd expect -- the highs and lows of extremely intense negotiations. I'm told by various people with knowledge of the situation that the two have walked that fine line between representing the interests of the owners while earning the trust of the players.

"Kraft and Mara are key to a new deal," texted one player close to the negotiations.

Another told me the two men are among the most trusted in the room.

Truth is a new collective bargaining agreement won't get done without them. It's likely the rapid progress that has been made wouldn't have been without them, either.

Only three owners have attended each of the recent meetings with players: Kraft, Mara and Carolina's Jerry Richardson. Others from the owners' economic council have rotated in, but Kraft, Mara and Richardson have been constants. Richardson is seen by players as a hard ass, and Kraft and Mara have counterbalanced his blunt and aggressive manner. It was Richardson who, during the early part of the process, unnecessarily humiliated Peyton Manning.

Kraft and Mara believe strongly in the current parameters of the deal, I'm told. This is important. Because of the respect they've earned among other owners, they will be able to convince many of them that the deal currently being negotiated, while not ideal, is fair for all sides. Trust me on this: The players won't be totally happy with it either.

If I had to guess, this will be the message Kraft, Mara and The Gang of Moderates will relay to the owners once they convene in Chicago next week: This deal, while not perfect, is one we should take. If we don't, we could face football Armageddon.

If the owners reject this deal, football could collapse under the weight of its own arrogance.

Indeed, I think there will actually be few owners who might stand against the deal. The opponents will be the usual suspects: a fractional number of small-market owners like Ralph Wilson, a few extremists like Dan Snyder and the egoists like Jerry Jones. I think the likelihood of a massive outburst against the deal's currently constructed parameters is small.

Kraft's role has evolved. He was initially much more hard line but has since emerged as a peacemaker. The fact he was once hawk but now is more dove will actually get him more respect. That and his financial acumen.

Mara has long been a moderate, and the Mara family name carries immense clout among both players and owners. As a negotiator, I'm told, Mara is calm, smart and fair.

The best information still points to a new deal being reached toward the end of the month and beginning of July. I've seen or heard nothing that contradicts this.

Once an agreement is reached, many will take credit for helping to settle this mess, but only a handful from the owner side -- namely Kraft and Mara -- will deserve it.

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