Posted: Monday March 14, 2011 6:38AM ; Updated: Monday March 14, 2011 2:43PM
Peter King

The NFL labor situation is bad, but resolution closer than it appears

Story Highlights

Examining the NFL's final offer, it appears there's a deal to be made

An interesting statistical comparison of Tiki Barber and Adrian Peterson

Quotes of the Week, Tweets of the Week and 10 Things I Think I Think

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NFL commissioner Roger Goodell presented a new deal to the union Friday that ultimately shows the two sides aren't far apart.
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Maybe it's because I'm an optimist. Maybe it's because when I left the Westend Bistro on the edge of Georgetown just before midnight Thursday, union board member Jeff Saturday and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell were deep in discussion in the bar, and not very happy to have been seen. Maybe it's because when Goodell and De Smith of the decertified players union spoke Friday night after negotiations broke down, neither strafed the other with the kind of verbiage that would be hard to take back.

It's bad now. We all know that. It's in the hands of the lawyers, and it could be for months, and there's a scenario under which games will be lost this year. But it's not Olbermann-O'Reilly bad, or LeBron-Cleveland bad. And it's way too early for doomsday. Opening weekend is 26 weeks away, and after leaving Washington on Saturday, and talking with people from both sides over the weekend, I believe the players and owners are closer to a deal than anyone thought Friday night.

I said closer than anyone thought, not close. The league needs to bend more on the issue of financial transparency. And the league needs to read the other side much, much better; I can't believe no one in the NFL's Harvardian negotiating party could sense the explosion brewing among the players on the union side, players who felt dissed because they hadn't negotiated against the league's full ownership team of labor negotiators. There's a business side to this, and there's a personal side, and the league failed to understand the personal anger the players had about being ignored or belittled, or both, as the clock wound down Thursday and Friday. Argue if you want about that being an act or immature or whatever, but I can tell you -- it was there. For days. I felt it hourly standing on the sidewalk outside the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service at the corner of 21st and K streets. How did league people not feel it upstairs in the meeting rooms?

And don't read this to mean that I think there will be a new collective bargaining agreement done this summer. It could be that the league will play this year under the capless 2010 rules if forced to, while negotiating some weeks and arguing the case in a Minneapolis courtroom other weeks.

But the league moved a lot Friday. Not enough, but a lot. When Goodell met with key league people shortly after sunrise Friday, likely emboldened by some but not all positive ideas exchanged with Saturday, the Colts' center, hours earlier, he began to put together with the owners a series of new proposals. Examine the offer Goodell and league counsel Jeff Pash put on the table to the union Friday -- which, in the wake of the thing blowing up, I don't think even big football fans and big football players have done enough of -- and you'll see that there's a deal to be made.

Look at what's in this deal:

The probable end of the cockamamie 18-game regular-season idea -- unless the players resuscitate it. The league said the regular season would stay at 16 games for the next two seasons, and wouldn't go to 18 in the next three years unless the players approved. All I'd heard for the past six months was when the league goes to 18 games. Not "if.''

The players hated the 18-game season with a passion, and for good reason. Injuries are an epidemic; in game 17 this year, New Orleans got to the fourth quarter of the wild-card showdown at Seattle with its eighth running back of the season ready to go. The first five were on IR. The next two got hurt earlier in that game. I could pick 10 other examples to make the case for not playing more real games, but it's just common sense. Goodell got it. Just like that, it's gone.

The offseason becoming more like an offseason. Current offseason programs -- the (nudge-nudge) voluntary mandatory ones -- last from early March to mid-June at team facilities. There's no rule for how long or short they are, but as a general rule, they're about 15 weeks long, with mandatory long-weekend minicamps and 14 days of Offseason Training Activities (OTAs) mixed in. The NFL proposed cutting five weeks off the offseason program, essentially lopping off a third of it, and cutting the 14 OTA days down to 10. "We were getting into an arms race, and everyone knew it,'' said one league executive.

In addition, the league, led by Competition Committee chair Rich McKay and Washington GM Bruce Allen, along with influential player leaders, in smaller group sessions at the mediator's office, had discussed limiting the number of two-a-days in training camp and curtailing the number of padded in-season practices.

Third-party arbitration for drug and steroid appeals. You know who presided over the league's StarCaps appeal? Pash. Goodell, under the powers of the commissioner, had the right to discipline and to hear appeals for players in drug, steroid and disciplinary cases. This infuriated players, and rightly so. What sense did it make to appeal a drug case to the office that gave you the original penalty? In the proposed new CBA, the league and players would agree to an impartial person to hear the appeals, perhaps from one of the major anti-doping agencies.

A significant improvement in post-football health care. The devil might be in the details on this one. Currently, vested NFL players with four years of service or more can retire and get five years of free post-career health care. In the proposal, vested players could receive lifetime health care after the five years expire, simply by paying an annual COBRA-like fee. How would this differ from health care in the real world? Many players retire with some pre-existing condition that would make health insurance more expensive (perhaps much more so) to obtain on their own.

One other factor here: The NFL would allow players to fund future health premiums in a health-care reimbursement account, for use years after their careers end. I don't know enough about this -- all the details on it haven't been ironed out -- but with this piece of the pie, a player who began to experience terrible back pain, for instance, 12 years after his career ended, wouldn't have to appear before an NFL panel to try to prove it's football-related. He'd be covered regardless of how the back pain happened.

Teams would have to spend 90 percent of the salary-cap number over the first three years of the new CBA. Last year, the Chiefs and Bucs both won 10 games and spent no more than $85 million on player salaries. Over the next three years, they'd have to raise that to at least $110.3 million, on average, per year. (That number would vary, depending on the salary-cap numbers the owners and players would agree to.)

This is a complex tenet because the two sides are at odds over how much the cap should be and also, according to players union veteran Pete Kendall, because of two ways to figure a cap. The league offered a $131 million cap for year one of the new CBA that could increase based on league profits if the league made 5.5 percent more profit than in the previous year; when the league increased the offer to $141 million, all the incentive money was gone, and $141 million was a flat figure, Kendall said. If you wonder why the 90 percent figure wouldn't have the 90-percent figure higher, know that the cap number includes about $25 million in annual health-and-benefit expenses.

Guaranteeing up to $1 million for a player whose career was ended by injury in the midst of a multi-year contract. Teams have never, as a matter of course -- unless it was written into the contract to begin with -- paid injury guarantees after a player's career ended. Example (and this is fictitious): Let's say Chicago linebacker Hunter Hillenmeyer retired this offseason after he missed most of last year with a concussion. Instead of getting none of his scheduled $1.8-million salary in 2011, he'd get $1 million. That's not exactly noble. But it's new.
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