Now for some labor action.
I've learned three interesting things from sources close to the labor talks:
One impediment to a deal dating back to the owners' March 11 offer to the players was the fact that ownership didn't offer players any "backside'' to the salary-capped years of 2011 through 2014. Players wouldn't have been able to benefit from any major influx in income by owners, and that wasn't good enough for the rank-and-file, rightfully so.
I'm now told owners likely will be willing to give players a percentage of the profits beyond what the owners project for those four seasons. This would become significant in 2014, when the league will reach new network TV deals with its partners, and the rights fees could go up monstrously. This is important. Not unexpected, because owners knew they'd have to do it, but important.
Here's the biggest reason: If the players got no piece of the new TV hike, how do you think they'd feel if headlines in the future trumpeted a $2-billion increase in the rights fees beginning in 2014 (that's a guess on my part, but it might not be far off if the ratings continue to soar) and the owners could pocket the increase beyond the scheduled bump in the cap and expenses? Not good, which is why the owners have to put in a backside to the deal. And now, apparently, will do so.
The dinner Roger Goodell and De Smith had Wednesday night, alone? "Don't underestimate it,'' I'm told. "A very good sign.'' The two men hadn't gotten much done between them in recent months, and it's been obvious to see that both have had problems with how the other has led his team. Gene Upshaw was always able to call Paul Tagliabue and later Goodell, even in anger, and that's something Goodell and Smith must be able to do too.
The two sides, when they meet, are working in some smaller groups on individual issues. The length of the offseason program, for instance; health and safety of players too. In the owners' last proposal to the players, on March 11, the one that was summarily rejected, there was a basis for progress on things like a five-week reduction in the offseason programs and fewer offseason training activity days, and on a form of lifetime health insurance for current players upon retirement. Now the devil is in the details on these things, and owners and players are working to get closer on them.
Look for the talks to continue this week, somewhere. But don't expect a resolution imminently. The CBA is long and tedious, and each side is going over every sentence, even without the lawyers in-house. "It'd be a mistake to think it's certainly going to happen,'' said one source. "There's a long way to go. But instead of people yelling at each other, trying to score debating points, now people are sitting down and talking to each other, trying to solve a very involved case. That's progress.''
One other point I find interesting. Fans may not like preseason games, and ticket buyers may not like paying for them, but I've heard from a TV source that the first real loss of money may come if any preseason games are called off. "That,'' the source said, "would send a sign to the advertising community that the talks are not going well, and some advertisers might say, 'I'm not waiting until the last minute for my September buys. I'm going to buy more college football.' ''
There are 11 nationally televised preseason games, beginning with the St. Louis-Chicago Hall of Fame Game on Aug. 7 on NBC. Each game has 60 ad buys, 30 seconds apiece. That's 660 spots. Altogether, the preseason generates around $700 million in TV, gate and ancillary revenue. The reason this matters is if preseason games are gone, there's going to be less 2011 money to share with players. The owners won't like that, and the players won't like it when the owners cut their offer once that money's out the window.
Therefore, each side knows it's to their advantage -- both for getting players in shape as well as keeping the finances from plummeting -- to make sure the preseason goes on as scheduled.
I said in SI the other day my over-under for a deal is July 4. I might say July 10 now, but I still think chances are better there will be a deal than there won't -- and that deal will come within a month.
Top 100 Section
Now we're getting down to the nitty-gritty. The NFL Network, with 415 players voting, unveiled numbers 31 through 40 last night, as I do here. (And if you need a refresher on both our lists, go here.) A few notes:
The offense-defense balance is where we part ways, comparing the lists. My top 50 is 25 offense, 25 defense; the players' list is 31-19 offense-defense. I'm 20-20 in my top 40, while NFLNet's is 24-16 offense
Good debate last week on Troy Polamalu at 50. For those who missed my Tuesday column, I acknowledged Polamalu's greatness, but said players have to play, and with Polamalu missing 13 games in the past two seasons and being a non-factor in the playoffs, I'm not sure he's going to hold up for a full season anymore
I chuckled at a few of you saying because I had Polamalu 50th I must have something against the Steelers. No team has as many players in my top 50 as Pittsburgh (6); Green Bay is next with four.
Future hint: I have eight quarterbacks in my top 30. And based on my criticism of the players' placement of Ben Roethlisberger at 41, you might guess he'll be in my top 30. Or 20. Or 10
And I know Vincent Jackson has had a star-crossed recent history, but he's still my sixth-rated wideout. (Obviously, Greg Jennings and DeSean Jackson are 4-5.)
Devin Hester at 32 on the players' list? Way too high for me. Outstanding punt returner, but I can't put a guy in my top 100 who, in two seasons as a full-time starter for the Bears, has 97 catches for a pedestrian 12.7-yard average. Antonio Gates is my 32nd-ranked player. He's a tight end. Average per catch in the last two years: 15.0.
Comparing our ranking of 31-40:
Commencement Speaker of the Season
Novelist Toni Morrison wins for what she said to the 2011 graduating class at the State university of New Jersey, Rutgers (as reported by the New York Times):
"I have often wished that Jefferson had not used that phrase 'the pursuit of happiness' as the third right ... I would rather he had written, 'life, liberty and the pursuit of meaningfulness' or 'integrity' or 'truth.' I know that happiness has been the real, if covert, goal of your labors here. I know that it informs your choice of companions, the profession you will enter. But I urge you, please do not settle for happiness. It's not good enough. Personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice -- that's more than a barren life; it's a trivial one. It's looking good instead of doing good.''
I love reading those commencement speeches. One of the proudest moments I've had in recent years was being my alma mater's graduation speaker in 2008, at Ohio University.
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